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.

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“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.

An embarrassment of riches

A few snapshots from a picture-perfect weekend in Amsterdam. Dear friends Scott and Michael (and about 20 others!) are here to celebrate Michael’s birthday. We’ve been given some gorgeous days filled with sunshine, great food, and lots of laughter. Much to celebrate…

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A fabulous Friday evening dinner at De Kas.

Followed by a day at the Keukenhof Garden…

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And a walk home past Amsterdam’s carnival…

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Too much

Well, I don’t even know where to start. There is just TOO MUCH going on, people! First of all, today is Opening Day! My Boston Red Sox kick off the season at 3pm against the Phillies, which means I may actually be able to follow the game, allowing for the time difference. Hoo-rah.

Then there’s this: April is National Poetry Month! Thanks to the incomparable Summer Pierre for reminding me of that, and for featuring poetry and its power in one of her amazing comics. (Hi, Sum!) Let us all allow ourselves some poetry over the coming month.

And lest you think baseball and poetry don’t have anything in common, think again! For my money, the most poetic thing written about baseball is not a poem at all, but John Updike’s famous, gorgeous New Yorker piece about Ted William’s last at-bat at Fenway Park – a home run. If you care about baseball or the craft of writing it is worth your time to read the whole thing, but here’s a little taste:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

If that last line doesn’t give you chills, well, there’s just no helping you.

And then, in addition to all of this sporting and cultural excitement, it was Easter weekend. Easter Monday is a holiday here in the Netherlands. (For a strongly non-religious nation, they have a relatively high number of religious holidays.) My hubby and I ventured out of Amsterdam and headed to Maastricht, a lovely little city and the capital of the Netherland’s southern-most province, Limburg. How this little spit of land sandwiched between Belgium and Germany even belongs to the Dutch is beyond me, but it does. It maintains its own regional language (Limburgish) and is a strongly Catholic region.

Being there over the Easter weekend gave us the chance to see some of the Catholic roots and rituals first hand. A long Good Friday procession wound past our hotel, featuring several drum corps. Marchers carried large prints of the Stations of the Cross and statues of Jesus. Priests and members of the religious societies walked throughout the town before ending at the local parish. It was a bit strange to be observing the whole thing, to be honest, instead of being part of it, which is what I would have been doing at my own church had I been back in Boston.

I also missed spending the day with family or friends.  Easter has been the most fluid of my holidays, in terms of tradition. During my childhood it was Church in the morning and then family – one grandma’s house for breakfast and the other for dinner. It was new outfits (usually the same as my sister’s, just a different color), and family pictures by the birch tree. In Boston, it was Church (Episcopal, by then), and brunch with friends. It was a new outfit, and champagne and mouth-eggs and shared cooking and laughter. And in recent years it turned back to family, usually with my in-laws. Last year we were in New York with my family. It was the last holiday we had before my mom’s death in August, although not the last time we were together.

The loss of my mom isn’t something that I’ve shared much here; in many ways the grief is still too near. But maybe in light of the loss, the only thing to do was to have an Easter unbound to any tradition. To almost let it go unobserved, as a way to recognize that things have changed – are changing – and that we do not yet know the shape they will take. We instead have a year with no ritual, no traditions – we let it pass, but not unmarked, not forgotten. And we wait to see what will happen next.

I’ll leave you where we started. (No, not with baseball, although the Sox have already scored in the time it took me to write this post.) I’ll leave you with a poem I love. It is a poem about Easter, about grief and doubt and joy and the long journey we’re all on. To steal from the poem’s ending, “Long flight, soar freely, spiral and glide in the empty air.”

Getting settled…

Not quite sure where the last ten days went, but we have been busy here on our straat. I’m happy to say that my dear husband finally arrived, almost one week ago. Since then, he’s unpacked, set up our internet and cable, successfully programmed the Dutch-only thermostat, and started his immigration adventure.

My immigration process was incredibly easy. My employer applied for a “highly skilled knowledge worker” visa, and once that was approved, the rest of the process was completed in about 4 hours. I registered at the ExpatCenter, and got my all-important BSN, or burgerservicenummer, within a few minutes. Without a BSN, you sort of don’t exist here, so getting it quickly is key if you want to set up a bank account or get health care. You know, the little things. Anyway, after that I went directly to the Immigration office and did all the biometric stuff required: fingerprints, photo, retinal scan. Three weeks later I got my residency visa, and that was that.

Unfortunately things are not quite so simple for my “trailing spouse”. (I’m happy to say that the somewhat nicer phrase “accompanying spouse” is becoming more common, since someone must have finally realized how obnoxious and patronizing “trailing spouse” sounds.) But, we’re making progress and I’m confident that things will work out and all the paperwork will be resolved in short order.

It is challenging to watch someone I love go through the same process I did, but with different results. And I’m not just speaking about the immigration process. This move was largely my doing – it was my idea, my initiative. I came here almost two months before my husband and, as a result, I had to go through the early settling in by myself:  setting up a bank account, getting lost every time I went out, navigating the grocery store or the metro or any number of Dutch cultural situations. I met new people, but still had quiet and solitary weekends. I sometimes went a day or two without talking to another person.  I was not completely alone – a few friends and many colleagues helped along the way. But I found my own way, more often than not.

Now it seems that part of me wants to help my husband with every little thing, and make the “settling in” road as smooth and as easy as I can. I certainly don’t want to make things any harder for him. But I also know, first-hand, the value of him finding his own way, and discovering what is great and frustrating and exciting about this adventure that he has started. That we have started.

While this move was my idea, I don’t want to imply that my husband was opposed to it, or that he will be unhappy here. But still, we are different people with different motivations for making this change. I came here predisposed to love it – I already love Amsterdam, and the Dutch, and bicycles, and pretty much everything about the culture and the pace of life here. My husband came here predisposed to love me. And for that I am immensely grateful. And for the rest? Well, we’ll just have to work on that. Together.

Geneva dispatch

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Greetings from Geneva! I’ve been a bit absent this week as I prepared for my first business trip at my new job. It’s also my first visit to Geneva.

When we were first considering moving abroad, we thought about Geneva, given the number of UN and other humanitarian agencies based here. But Amsterdam always had more of a pull, and I have to admit that we made the right choice. Geneva, you’re nice enough, but you’re no Amsterdam.

Looking forward to getting home tomorrow and checking my mailbox…