Lifelong language learning

We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.

-Adam Gopnik

About 25% of non-Hispanic American adults speak a language other than English well enough to have a conversation. The figures here in the Netherlands tell a very different story: 90-93% of Dutch people speak English, 71% speak German, and 25% are conversant in French. Do the math, and you’ll realize that proficiency in a 2nd and 3rd language is as Dutch as bicycles or bitterballen. It is a reflection of the size of the country (small), its location (surrounded by Germany and Belgium), and its history (global commerce). While I can’t comment on the German skills of Dutch people, I can say that their English is quite good, something that many attribute to television. In neighboring European countries, English-language programs are dubbed in the local language. Here, TV and films have Dutch ondertitels, which means that people hear a lot of English, and that the English spoken by many Dutchies is peppered with British or American slang.

If you grow up in the U.S., a second language is an academic exercise, not a necessity. Many students stumble through high-school level French or Spanish, learning just enough to pass the required test, never really understanding the use or benefit of a second language. In contrast to the modern English spoken by the Dutch, the French I learned in school always seemed from another era: formal, stuffy, a bit archaic. The things we really needed to know – the idioms and everyday expressions that give real-world confidence – were never taught.


Language apps only teach the most useful phrases, right?

(That said, I will never forget that during my first visit to Paris I was approached by a woman on the street who asked, “Où est la bibliothèque?” It was a text-book question, pulled from one of the endless, useless dialogues we practiced in class, right up there with, “Est-ce que vous voulez jouer au tennis avec moi?” I swear I looked around for my French teacher Madame Clines…it had to be a joke, right? Never in my life have I been so prepared to answer a question.)

For me, language learning has become a life-long pursuit. I’ve shared a lot about my experiences learning French, including the immersion program that I did several years ago. French remains both my favorite language and a constant challenge. I don’t do as much as I should to keep it up. I progress and forget, I have periods of more intense practice and study, and then I’ll go weeks or months without using it at all.

Then there’s Dutch. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that my Dutch is as poor as it is. We don’t plan to stay here forever, and we don’t technically need to speak Dutch, especially in Amsterdam. But after 2 years, I feel like I should know more, or at least try harder. My comprehension has improved a lot, in part because my co-workers often just speak Dutch in front of me. And I know enough to get by. I can introduce myself and read a menu and order a drink and probably ask for directions. But as with my early French lessons, I often feel that the little Dutch I do know is formal and not very useful. It’s the practical, every-day things I miss. Those small expressions and pleasantries that act as social and conversational lubricant. Maybe with a few of those in my pocket I’d be more likely to chat with a neighbor in Dutch, or finally agree to “Nederlands vrijdag” in the office.

In the meantime, at least I’m prepared if anyone in Amsterdam ever asks me about grandparents and farm animals…

What running taught me

Mon Dieu!  I have been delinquent in keeping you lovely folks up to date on all the goings-on around here. It’s been a busy time. We just returned this morning from a wonderful long weekend in Lyon (more on that soon). The weekend before we were with friends and enjoying a particularly Dutch adventure (more on that, too) in the north of Holland.

But for now, as I relax after a slow, hot, not-so-great training run, and with my first race in years just 6 days away, I figured I’d take a few minutes to share a bit more about my return to running. As I mentioned last time, I spent a couple of years recovering from a very painful injury to my heel and foot. It was so bad that I had pretty much given up on running completely. But after many months of finally being pain-free, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could start up again. When I was encouraged (pressured?) to be part of a company team for an annual race in Amsterdam, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my “comeback”.

As I often do when tackling a new project, I made a plan. I dug out my list of physical therapy exercises and started the calf stretches and one-legged squats. I downloaded a walk-to-run app and eased slowly back into running. I joined a running group to give some structure to my training. In the first weeks, I obsessed about my heel and how it was feeling. I paid attention to every little twinge, worried that it was a relapse. I rested, stretched, massaged, and did whatever I could to be sure that I was protecting the site of the old injury.

Several weeks into my training, on a long run with my pace group, I noticed a little pain in my knee. We were running distances I had never done before; on this day, the knee discomfort started around kilometer 14 or 15. I remember being surprised by it – less by the pain itself, and more by the idea that some part of my body other than my foot could hurt.

Later that day, I realized that for the previous months of preparation and training, I had been completely focused on my heel, worried only about protecting and strengthening it. So focused, it turns out, that it never occurred to me to pay attention to pain or discomfort anywhere else. I was running as if I believed that the only possible injury I could have was a recurrence of the old one.

I don’t think my approach is an unusual or even a bad response to injury. We do need to protect parts of ourselves. We need to strengthen these tender areas, baby them a little. That’s fine at first – necessary, even. But if the goal is to return to full health, then shielding something too long can put us at risk in other ways. Maybe we opt to remove ourselves completely from something – a sport, an activity, a relationship – in order to stay safe. Or, we may find that our focus on the hurt or broken part has blinded us to other things that need our attention – both opportunities and vulnerabilities that we fail to see.

I’m not going to get all “Zen and the Art of Running” on you (mostly because I haven’t read the book), but I do find that this time around, running is giving me more than it did before. In the past few months, I feel like I’ve developed a greater general awareness. I have more trust in my body and its ability and potential. My injury and the pain that came with it felt like a betrayal of sorts; my normally healthy body suddenly had limitations that frustrated and (literally) hurt me.  But now we’re back on steady ground. I take less for granted, and try to pay more attention – not just to the parts that have been damaged.

When physical activity of any kind brings you challenge, focus, peace, growth, and health, you’re on the right path. Whatever does it for you, keep at it. Do it more.

The view from up here

I’m taking a quick break from all the running talk to share what may have been my sportiest, most active day ever, at least since I’ve been in Amsterdam. Last Saturday started like most other Saturdays, with my regular group training run, although due to the heat and my plans for the evening (more on that in a second), I cut my run short. While the rest of the group logged 18km, I finished up at 13km. After a casual bike ride to a lovely lunch, and some afternoon down time, it was off to the newly opened Lookout at the Amsterdam Tower. But this was no touristy sight-seeing visit. This was business.


Every day, I ride that little ferry in the bottom right corner, crossing to Noord. Lucky me.

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to Rocycle, a “party on a bike” spin class that had recently come to Amsterdam. Although I had wondered at the time why anyone in this bike-crazy city would be interested in a spin class, I have to admit that it was a lot of fun, and a great workout. I’m not even close to being a regular at the spin studio, but I am on the Rocycle email list. I read that they were hosting a rooftop sunset ride at the A’dam Tower, raising money for the A’dam Music School. And I wanted in.

To loosely paraphrase the very funny Kristin Newman in her memoir/travelogue “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding”, sometimes you have to do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it. This seemed like an only-in-Amsterdam experience, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I wasn’t in the best of shape for the Rocycle workout, to be honest. My legs were tired from the morning run and I couldn’t find (or keep) the pace for some of the combinations. But I didn’t worry too much about that…I just looked out over the IJ River, and watched the sunset, and felt the wind whipping around us, and knew that this was a true Amsterdam experience that I would not soon forget, even if it left me sore and sweaty.


And off we rode, into the sunset…


Spinning in Bike Town

Why, in a city with more bikes than residents, where 63% of people use their bike(s) daily, where there are 500km of cycling paths and no less than 157 bike shops, why, WHY would anyone take a spinning class?

This was the question I was asking myself last night as I headed (by bike!) to my first exercise class in Amsterdam. A friend invited me to join him and his wife at RoCycle, a relatively new spin/cycling studio in Amsterdam. Billed as a “killer workout for badass people”, I was curious.

As I may have mentioned, I love to bike. I contribute to the imbalance of bikes and people in Amsterdam; I have two bikes. My daily commute is on my city bike, with its coaster breaks and single gear. It is practical and functional and I have come to love it.

IMG_2190 (2)

This is my city bike. My racing bike is too fast to be photographed.

My weekend rides are on my beautiful road bike, a black Specialized Roubaix that is light and responsive and has more gears than I need. I did not have to learn to love it.

The biking culture of the Netherlands was one of the things that made moving here so attractive. Even my husband, who does not enjoy cycling, has converted to biking for most of our errands and outings. It’s just the best, fastest way to get around.


Still, I wondered, will people who spend so much time cycling for transport and practicality want to cycle for exercise? It seems that the answer is yes, although there were definitely some Americans and other non-Dutch folk in my first RoCycle class. And of course, most of us came and went by bike. (But wow, was the ride home a challenge!)

I had taken spinning classes before, so I knew my daily bike commute would have about as much in common with RoCycle as watching “Top Chef” does with cooking a 5-course meal for 20 people. Still, I wasn’t worried. Faced with a little anxiety before this new class, I called up a memory from one of the first spinning classes I took in Boston. It would have been in late February or early March of 2010. It was just days after my grandmother passed away, and a few weeks after my mom shared her cancer diagnosis with us. At a challenging moment in the class, probably a climb, the instructor was encouraging us to stay with it, keep going. And a very clear sequence of thoughts came into my head: Your grandmother has died. Your mother is sick, and dying. But you. You are here. You are alive. You are strong. You. Are. Not. Giving. Up.

I come from a line of remarkable women, now gone. In that moment, years ago, my health and fitness offered one way that I could keep the story going, keep the line alive. And I felt that again last night, as the instructor told us to “give it all we had”.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I had a reserve to draw from, that I could handle more work and more sweat and a little more pain. And I did not give up.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with any other sport. I’ll wimp out of running in a heartbeat. But on the bike, I am a badass.


Second time around

In a few days, we’ll mark the first anniversary of my husband’s arrival in Amsterdam. After that, it will be official: it’s our second time around.

This time last year, everything was new. We were hosting our first visitors, experiencing the first spring, the first tulip season, and our first King’s Day. We were buying bicycles, learning our way around, taking a Dutch class, and generally getting settled into our life in Amsterdam. Everything was new, and that newness made even the frustrating and challenging moments seem like little adventures.

Now, the rhythm of the city is more familiar. The holidays and festivals and seasons come around again and while I am still far from expert (what, exactly, is pinksterdag?), I recognize them, and their patterns. This is not to say that I am bored or even inattentive to the charms of Amsterdam. I have kept my word to my friend Peter who, while cycling along the canals on a gorgeous July day, turned to me and said, “Promise me you will never take this for granted.”

So no, I’m not the least bit jaded. Instead, I often have the feeling you get when you run into a friend, or come across a book or a trinket you thought you had misplaced. “Yes, I remember you.  And didn’t we have a lovely time once before? How very nice to see you again…what new memories might we make together now?”

There are, of course, so many things to discover that it almost seems a shame to do anything twice. I always feel a little guilty just returning to a restaurant, since there are so many we haven’t yet tried. Although we have visited most major cities in the Netherlands, there are still some must-do experiences that we don’t want to miss. And now that we’re in a different neighborhood, we have a host of new restaurants to try, and new streets to explore.

The big difference, perhaps, is one of expectations. Not my expectations of the Netherlands or the Dutch, which continue to surprise and delight and challenge me. I assume less, and assume I know less, and I am open to learn and listen. But my expectations of myself have changed. I am at once more adventurous and more judgmental of myself when I fail to be adventurous – when I take the easy way out, instead of engaging or taking a risk. I am frustrated that I haven’t given more time and energy to learning Dutch, and that I still find it hard to build connections and friendships.

But maybe that’s what the second time around is for. More chances. More opportunities to dig deeper, try harder, learn from past mistakes. Or to not try so hard, and lighten up, play more, make our own fun, and create what it was we hoped to find.


On (and off) the tourist trail

It’s another lazy winter weekend. The weather invites us to stay inside, bake some cookies, curl up with a book, maybe watch a movie.  On these kinds of days, though, we often end up asking ourselves if we “should” be doing more. We’re living in a beautiful  European city. Are we wasting time? Will we one day regret these lazy days?

I suspect this is a not-uncommon question for expats. There is a struggle to find the balance between exploring the city, and just having a “normal”, relaxed life. We could easily spend every weekend at a museum. We could become day-trippers who start every Saturday with a train ticket in one hand and a guide book in the other. We could go further afield and fly to another country every Friday evening, getting back just in time to start the work week. Instead, we’ve opted to be slightly lower-key. Maybe we’ll be more ambitious when spring arrives, and the weather is more welcoming.


Planning a trip?

This is not to say that we’ve been total home-bodies. Last weekend we hit a good balance between tourism and local-ism. In preparation for our upcoming move (more about that another time) we went in search of some second-hand furniture. Our hunting took us to Van Dijk & Co., an amazing warehouse in an industrial part of Amsterdam Noord.  No tourists to be found here, just stuff. So much stuff. Shelves of suitcases stacked to the ceiling. Desks, dishes, tables, armoires. Office furniture, filing cabinets, lamps, religious statues. It was a prop-master’s dream. We didn’t buy anything (yet), but it was great to explore the huge space and all its treasures. And it was fun to bike to a part of Noord that we’d never been to before – just getting there felt a bit like a treasure hunt, too.

The following day we were back on the more traditional tourist trail, finally crossing the Amsterdam Museum off our list.  (I should report that I ultimately failed in my year-long quest to get to every museum in Amsterdam that accepts the Museumkaart, but I came close.) After a surprisingly cozy lunch at a very friendly Dutch cafe, we headed to the museum. We were not the only tourists on the trail that day, and the museum was crowded. It was the last day of an exhibit about graffiti artists in the 1970s and 80s, which explained the high number of visitors. Graffiti as art is not something I’m into, but I did find it interesting to see how the artistic influences could be traced from New York City to Amsterdam.  Another of the many links between (Old) Amsterdam and New Amsterdam.


We ended our touristy day with a stroke of great luck. We headed to Van Stapele for an afternoon snack. We were introduced to this charming shop on a Hungry Birds food tour, and it’s become a favorite stop when we’re in the neighborhood (and even when we’re nowhere near the neighborhood). The sign on the door said they were sold out, but we managed to get the last two cookies of the day. Sometimes these little rewards are the best motivation for getting us off the couch and out the door. For today, though, we’re staying put.




Backwards and forwards

We’re back in Amsterdam! Our holiday break in the U.S. was both relaxing and exhausting – who knew that spending time with family and friends (and at Target) would wipe us out so completely? Thankfully we had a weekend to recover before jumping back into the routine of commuting, working, and day-to-day life, and we’ve already survived the first week of the new year.

I’ve also survived the endless, annual parade of articles, lists, and listicles (whatever the hell those are) touting the “Best [Books/Films/Moments] of 2015″, or the “Year in Review”.  No sooner do I get through those stories than I’m on to, “What’s Hot in the New Year” or “Ones to Watch in 2016”.

The reality is that when it comes to books, news, films, and life in general, I’ll never be able to stay on top of what’s new and – more importantly – what’s good. And by “good” I really mean: what’s worth my time? What will challenge, trouble, motivate, console or enliven me?

I’ve become somewhat addicted to, a consistently inspiring and well-curated offering of poetry, art, and philosophy about things that matter: love, aging, work, dying. How to have a well-lived life. Most of what I’ve read this year I found thanks to that site. A few years ago, the author of the site, Maria Popova, started a “side project” pairing quotes from favorite books with songs. She calls it the Literary Jukebox, and it is worth your time.

Anyway, a while back, thanks to the Literary Jukebox, I found this quote from Debbie Millman, from her book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design.

…what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable.

Amen, sister. For some reason, the start of a new year brings this fretting into sharper focus. It’s like I’m staring down this year and the universes – universes!! – of things I am ignorant of, and don’t know where to start.

But I have to start somewhere, right?  I look to some trusted sources.  And I look around. There’s no shortage of inspiration in Amsterdam. And there’s so much that I don’t understand: art, history, modern politics, language, cultural practices. With our first year in the Netherlands behind us, it feels like it’s time to get serious as we go forward. We’ve had a year to adapt, get our feet wet, learn a little. Now we need to dig deeper.  Figure out what we don’t know.  Look for guides to discovery, but also leave room for chance and inspiration.

Bold goals for the new year, especially for someone who doesn’t generally make resolutions. Turning back to Debbie Millman, we’re reminded that this – and “this” is, really, all of it, all of live – is an experiment.

Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.

You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.

This, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

So here’s a final new year’s toast to 2016: to all that is unknown, and all there is to discover. Cheers!


My New Year’s Resolution

I’m not big on New Year’s Eve, or the idea of making resolutions. At least not at the turn of the year. The memory of new shoes and unsullied notebooks at the start of a school year never quite fades. And even though I’m years removed from the first day of school, September always seems like the right time to start fresh. These bleak mid-winter days of January – dark, short, cold – are a time for cuddling up with our old habits and lazy ways. It’s a terrible time to start exercising or dieting, or resolving to do anything other than read, watch old movies, maybe write a letter or two.

That said, I do have one New Year’s tradition, which is to read and to share a New Year’s poem. The same poem, every year, since I always need to hear what the poet is telling me. It’s called, simply, “New Year’s Resolution”, by Phillip Appleman. Some of the references are to American sporting traditions on New Year’s Day, specifically the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, but the message is universal. We all end a year with some regret, and we start a year with the promise to do better.

Regardless of where this finds you, may you enter 2016 with a joyful heart and a resolution to break your losing streak. Happy New Year!

Well, I did it again, bringing in
that infant Purity across the land,
welcoming Innocence with gin
in New York, waiting up
to help Chicago,
Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Honolulu–and now
the high school bands are alienating Dallas
and girls in gold and tangerine
have lost touch with Pasadena,
and young men with biceps and missing teeth
are dreaming of personal fouls,
and it’s all beginning again, just like
those other Januaries in
instant replay …
But I’ve had enough
of turning to look back, the old
post-morteming of defeat:
people I loved but didn’t touch,
friends I haven’t seen for years,
strangers who smiled but didn’t speak–failures,
failures. No,
I refuse to leave it at that–because
somewhere, off camera,
January is coming like Venus
up from the murk of December, re-
virginized, as innocent
of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets,
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training and be moderate
in all things.
All things but love.




Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!



Back to school

It’s Labor Day in the U.S.: the unofficial end of summer. Since it’s not a holiday in the Netherlands, I was at work today, and this evening I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed and seeing pictures of pool parties, barbecues, and beach outings. And although I don’t ever remember starting school before Labor Day, last week Facebook was filled with back to school photos. Everyone had new clothes and shiny new backpacks, and most of the kids looked ready – if not terribly excited – for the new school year.

I’ve never worked in an academic setting, but I still find that September, not January, feels like the start of the year, just like it did back in my school days. If you know me, it won’t be surprise to hear that I LOVED the start of a new school year. As a Catholic school kid, I wore a uniform, so I didn’t have new clothes.  But I usually had a new pair of shoes (which I was not allowed to wear until school started) and new school supplies. Everything seemed clean, ready, and full of potential.  We’d pick up our books a few days before classes started, and I would get an early jump on things by starting to read my history text or my math workbook. Yes, I was that kind of kid. (But like I said: are you surprised?)

The summer vacation in Holland is a bit shorter than in the U.S., and many of my colleagues’ children have already been back to school for several weeks. August was a frenzy of holiday-taking, as everyone tried to fit in a last vacation before the summer ended. So there is also a back-to-school feeling at work, as people return, tan and rested (for now).

I’m also going back to school. Last year, as part of my attempt to un-stick myself from the stuck-ness I was feeling in my work and life, I started looking into graduate programs. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, and then I stumbled on an online program at neighboring Northeastern University, in Corporate and Organizational Communication. Since my past work experience was largely operational, this seemed like a good way to balance out my professional self, and it just sounded interesting. Crisis communication, ethics, and, for this semester, negotiation, mediation and facilitation. This class won’t come a moment too soon, as I’ve been called on to do more than my share of (cross-cultural) facilitation recently,

Classes start on the 21st and last a brief but intense 6 weeks, so don’t be surprised if my blogging falls off a bit during that time. And with two weeks until the first day of school, I of course bought one of my books today, and will probably start reading it this week.  Now all I need is a new pair of shoes…