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.

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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…

No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.

Too much

That’s about the best I’ve got right now…it’s all just too much. Too much time has gone by since I’ve written anything here. Too much reading, discussing, worrying. Too much is happening in the world. Too much to process or to begin to understand. Too much distraction, though some of it welcome. Too much uncertainty, too much at stake. Here in Amsterdam, too much rain.

Everyone with an opinion and an internet connection has weighed in on the results of the US election, and what might happen next. Some of it has been honest, clear-headed, and helpful; some not. I don’t think adding my still-forming thoughts to the ever-growing body of commentary would benefit anyone. I will say that experiencing the election from overseas has been unexpectedly hard.

Weeks before the election, we planned to join friends at the Kurhaus Hotel in Den Haag for the traditional “Who’s the President?” Breakfast. Allowing for the time difference with the US, the party starts at 5am Wednesday with wall-to-wall CNN coverage and a buffet of bacon, eggs, and donuts. Lots of donuts. We had a lovely dinner the night before with our friends, complete with American flag table decorations. Total strangers approached us to express their concerns about the election and to ask who we voted for. We stayed overnight in the Kurhaus and I went to bed hopeful, but, (if I’m honest), worried.

The alarm woke us at 4:15 and we were in the ballroom by 5am, joining several hundred expats, military personnel, and some Dutch journalists. I took one look at the numbers on CNN and thought, “This is not good. It’s too close.” And the morning got worse from there. Over the course of the next few hours, it slowly dawned on everyone in the room (and most/many expats lean Democrat) that we were at the worst party ever. Inexplicably, there was a band at this event – five 20-somethings in suits playing standards and light jazz. I think we heard “The Girl from Ipanema” at least twice – a song I hate under the best of circumstances. I remarked to a friend that this must be what it felt like to listen to the orchestra play as the Titanic sunk.

Just after John Podesta told the Hillary supporters in New York to go home and go to bed, we called an end to our party, as well. Instead of going to bed, it was off to work (it was 8am, after all), where I had a day of commiserating with my 2 American colleagues, fighting with a Swedish coworker about vote rigging, and generally trying to make sense of America. Which I’ve been doing ever since.

Dutch people often ask us what we miss about America. Other than my family and friends, there’s really not much. It’s not like we live in rural China – most of what we want or need we can find here. (Although my dear husband does miss free refills on his Diet Coke.) But as we learn more about the plans of the President-Elect, I do miss being in the US, if for no other reason than to have something to DO, some collective action I can be part of. It is hard to know how to be effective from so far away. We are still homeowners and registered voters in Massachusetts, and we still have a voice. We can stay informed and be ready to act. We can make calls to our representatives – who are, thank God, progressive liberals like Elizabeth Warren, who are already doing what I’d want my reps to do.

But I can’t help feeling like I should be doing more. If I was in the US, my work or my friends or my church would offer opportunities for discussion, for protest, for action. Instead I feel a bit adrift, absorbing information and opinions, wanting to be useful but not sure how. (Suggestions welcome.)

In the end, I think we will need to get comfortable with “too much”.  In response to our worries we should offer each other too much support. In response to uncertainty there should be too much information, too much truth-telling. Threats to anyone’s civil rights or liberties should be met with too much protest. How I contribute to this from such a distance is unclear, but for now, may there be too much conversation, too much thinking, too much reading, too much solidarity.

Catching up

Some days go by in a blur, and before I know it, weeks have passed without my having marked them at all. And it’s not as if there haven’t been things worth noting. Just this month, we’ve welcomed family, said goodbye to friends, accomplished some goals and had one very unexpected victory.

I spent some time complaining recently about the Dutch weather, which is probably the least productive activity in all of the Netherlands. Happily, not long after my whining and moaning, the winds changed and the storms blew out.  And our visitors – my brother, sister in law, and a bunch of their friends – were rewarded with a lovely weekend, cool but sunny, perfect for boating. It was a great visit, my brother’s first to Europe, and filled with just the right balance of relaxation and activity. It’s always nice to host guests who just want to sit in the sun and drink a beer canal-side.

The day before my brother’s arrival, I said goodbye to my American friend and biking buddy, Kim. We met last summer, shortly after she arrived in Amsterdam. By chance, we sat next to each other on a warm night at a favorite Portuguese restaurant, and she introduced herself after overhearing us speak English. I later learned that she “never does stuff like that”. Even though she had spent almost every summer in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their kids, this was her summer to push herself, to try new things. Talking to us that night was the first in a long series of brave, bold things that she did for herself. With her husband’s sabbatical at an end, she and her family are heading back to their life in Ohio. I will miss our cycling adventures, exploring the back roads and the knooppuntenroute, stopping for tea and sweets along the way. I will miss our conversations, some of the most honest and open I’ve had.

Kim and I were good at cheering each other on, and she has been so encouraging as I  did my own brave, bold thing this spring, and returned to running. Over 2 years ago a painful injury ended my never-very-impressive running career, and I’ve been hesitant and fearful to start up again. But some months ago, I was challenged by my coworkers to sign up for a  race in Amsterdam in September. Sixteen kilometers. Ten English miles. No small thing for someone who has never run more than a 10k. But slowly, I’ve been getting back into it, building up my endurance. I’m running with a fun and supportive group every Saturday (hooray for House of Running!) and my weekend long runs are now in the 9-12k range. It’s been so surprising and rewarding to see my slow but steady work pay off, and to see my performance improve. I may even end up signing up for another race later this year…

And finally, those same influential coworkers convinced me to join in the Euro pool, even though I know nothing about European football. But I paid my entrance fee, set up my account (username: Clueless ‘Murican), made my picks, and selected 4 top scorers – even though I can only name 2 or 3 professional footballers. As luck and the sports gods would have it, halfway through the first round I climbed into first place. And there I stayed.  I didn’t predict the final winner,  but I earned enough points to hold onto the top spot. Tomorrow I’ll be presented with my prize and I will do my best to be a gracious and humble winner. But of course, as an American and a sports fan, in my head I’ll be running a victory lap, or doing an end-zone dance…a proper American celebration of a win.

 

 

We’ll call that a success

Our housewarming party is in the history books! And I’d say it was a good one. (Not to brag, but one guest actually said it was, and I quote, “The best housewarming” he had ever been to.) We worked pretty hard getting ready, and we ran around a bit during the party itself, but we both also had time to relax, talk to friends, introduce people to one other, and just enjoy the gang that we had assembled.

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The Jenga-like interior of our fridge, pre-party

The lesson for me in all of this is that in entertaining, some things matter: have enough good food and plenty of booze, with choices for everyone. And some things don’t matter: no one cares if the napkins match the plates. Or if the napkins match anything at all.

I felt like I was able to lighten up a little bit, even though, yes, I did snap at my dear husband when he put the cookies on the table in the plastic tray that they came in. But, c’mon. Desserts should be plated. He’s known me long enough to know better.

I also asked for help, and found that people were more than happy to be put to work assembling a salad or refilling the ice bucket. I’m reminded of a good friend with whom I volunteered as a youth mentor for several years. When creating the schedule for weekend events with dozens of teenagers, she would build in what she called “introvert time”, for those in the group (including her) who needed some quiet. It just occurred to me that for some party-goers on the introvert end of the Meyers-Briggs scale, a few minutes of focused alone time making a salad might be just what they need to re-charge before they head back into the social, extroverted fray.

Finally, I learned to trust other people to take care of themselves. Get them their first drink, then show them to the bar and let them help themselves to a refill. Make an introduction, and then let a conversation unfold. No one is going to go hungry or sit alone in a corner. Sure, if left to their own devices, half of your guests may end up crammed into the pantry well after midnight, drinking whisky and making music with a harmonica and your sauté pan. But isn’t that how most good parties end up?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Welcome home

It is a gorgeous early spring day in Amsterdam. I just ran a quick errand that took me back and forth through the Vondelpark. Just beautiful. There is still a thin layer of ice on some of the ponds but the sun is strong and the sky is clear and the warmer days ahead seem not so far away. Happily, my new commute (by bike, at least) will take me through the park daily and I’m looking forward to watching it bloom.

It’s much too nice to stay inside, so we’re getting out! But first I wanted to share that we are settling in well at the new apartment. We each had a short list something we needed to really feel at home (me: shower caddy. husband: television), and both have been secured. We have checked out a few local restaurants and will be hunting for a dry cleaner and a few other essentials. Photos will come. but we have water views from the front and back of the apartment, which on a day like today are spectacular. The neighborhood is much less touristy and more residential than our previous location, and I think that will be a benefit, in the long run.

Each day, we discover something new and something lovely about our new home. And we’re off to do more of that, right now. Wishing you a sunny and relaxing Saturday, wherever this finds you…