The Smile

I’ve lived in Holland, or The Netherlands, for four years now. It didn’t take me all that time to recognize the smile, but now that I have seen its many permutations, I feel its about time to write about it.

The Dutch are used to being straight forward. Its one of the traits you will read about in any manual on getting to know the Dutch culture. But surprisingly, The Smile is not always intentional. And what they do with it, once it has come, is very telling.

It first appears in the eyes of a native Dutch speaker during conversation, indicating that they have noticed something. And then, as this small realization settles more firmly into their conscience, the puppet strings of the mind attached to the corner of the Dutch mouth tug upward, pulling their lips into a smirk. They can no longer concentrate on the conversation underway, as they must ask the question.

The more refined members of the population delay the question out of courtesy to the conversation unfolding. They know the question lingers, but they focus on the exchange of information between two people, setting the question aside, or even choosing not to ask it at all. They are golden; ambassadors.

Others forget their manners and blurt out the question after your first few words. And then there is the group that doesn’t even ask the question, but chooses the statement form, to show some sort of Sherlock Holmes ingenuity–as if I was trying to fool them and got caught.

“You’re not Dutch.”

The tone and word choice of my answer are influenced by a number of factors including my mood, their age and the demeanor of their smile.

“No shit, Sherlock!” (Sarcastic response appropriate for someone your age or younger, who is not a client, a member of the government, or the person about to make your sandwich.)

“No. I’m not. I’m from America.” (Polite response to be given to clients, people older than you, a member of the government, the person making your lunch and old people with hearing problems).

The problem with this “You’re not Dutch, are you?” question/statement is that the non-native speaker is then caught on a precipice of internal debate. Did they make this comment because of my foreign accent, or did I make a huge, grammatical error? Wrong verb tense, wrong word order? Shit shit shit! This sort of internal dialogue is like throwing a bucket of ice-cold water on the libido of conversation; the chances of peak performance shrivel up rapidly.

Because if you were carrying on a conversation in your native language with a fellow native speaker, no one is going to interrupt the conversation mid sentence to question you about your origin. And if they do, it has nothing to do with your proficiency in the language, but with their curiosity about your cultural background.

The following step in the dialogue is rather insightful. The Sherlock types seem to stand a bit taller, the smile becomes a bit shrewder and they take liberties to correct you at the slightest error, their eyes gleaming with a sense of domination, teaching the simple non-native the finer points of Dutch intercourse. If you encounter this type, don’t bother to talk with them further. They are a waste of your time and energy.

The ambassador types, which seem to be prolific in The Hague, are used to an international environment. They are quick to praise you for your ability to speak Dutch and the efforts you make to use their native language despite the fact that most Dutch are quite fluent in English. And most importantly, their smile, which glints across their face, is one of encouragement, not condescension.

I know you all can’t help the smile. I’m sure I do it too when I hear you speak English. When you all say “He learned me this” instead of “he taught met this”, or the way you all sound when you sing English songs; the way the words are clipped off at the wrong places; I get it. It is smile worthy.

I realize there is a cute factor, but in general, there are not many adults that appreciate being thought of as cute when they are talking to you–including you!

So, with all due respect, unless you can learn from the ambassador types described above, get that damned smile off your face Sherlock, and realize that 1) Dutch is a very difficult language without much practical use outside of your very small country 2) most foreigners don’t even bother to learn Dutch, as they can get along just fine with English here. So those of us that are taking the time and interest to learn your language are doing so out of interest in you. You don’t need to laugh at us. 3). I’m not nearly as angry as you think I am. I enjoy learning your language!


Flexing your language muscles

I go to the gym a few times a week to keep myself sane and healthy. Another benefit of going to the gym as an expat is that most of the time, the classes are taught in Dutch. Words that you might not otherwise encounter in daily conversation “buikspieren” (stomach muscles), “sleutelbeen” (collar bone), are delivered up in short instructive sentences, combined with physical movement. This combination lets the words seep into your body and brain in a way that vocabulary lists or passive conversations can’t. But lately, there have been more expats than natives in the Body Balance course and the teacher has been switching to English.

My 8:15 a.m. sloth-brain appreciates the English, but the part of me that wants to get the language acquisition part of my brain in shape feels cheated. Please speak in Dutch! I want to say. But this morning, our Body Balance instructor also had a case of sloth-brain, and admitted she was too tired to translate the whole class in English today, despite the number of expats in the room. 

“It’s good for our Dutch!” I encouraged. And she set forth in her native language. My inner sloth-porcupine  prickled at the switch, discouraged that it had to work harder, but by the end of the class, not only were my muscles stretched, but my mind as well.

On my way out of the gym, with another expat of French origin, one of the trainers asked us in Dutch if we had “zin” (interest) in a group training. 

“Nee. Dank je wel. Ik heb zin in de bakkerij.” (No thank you. I have interest in the bakery.) I responded. The trim fitness coach with long blond hair and perfectly sculpted buikspieren laughed at my response and patted me on the arm in camaraderie. Usually, my sense of humor is lost on the Dutch, but this morning, a Dutch person not only got my sense of humor, but laughed in response! Now that is an accomplishment!

A small epiphany with a glass of wine

Last Friday I attended a friend’s 35th birthday party. Her living room, with tall glass doors to the garden and a gleaming hardwood floor, was filled with women festively dressed for the occasion. Dim lighting, jovial conversation and a table lined with a selection of wines and snacks created a festive atmosphere. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone besides the birthday girl when I arrived, I knew that I shared the common thread of her friendship with all of the guests, setting the stage for easy conversation among strangers.

I have been to such parties before, and enjoyed them immensely, but there was something that set this gathering apart from my former experiences–they were all speaking in Dutch. I started a conversation in English with the first woman I met and we had a fantastic dialogue that ranged from literature to parenting, to the speed of which our society is changing. But one thing that’s guaranteed about conversations at such a party; if you wander away to refill your wine glass, or snack on the mixed nuts, when you return, the conversation will have switched to Dutch. And so it was.

I joined in a conversation and within a few minutes I received compliments on my Dutch. This launched a conversation about language acquisition and comfort level in speaking in a foreign language. I admitted I didn’t feel comfortable speaking Dutch and both people with whom I spoke couldn’t understand why.

“I understand everything you are saying and you communicate very well. You have nothing to be uncomfortable about,” she responded in Dutch. I understood all of her words and I knew they were not meant to placate my fears. The Dutch aren’t into that. So I had to receive them earnestly. And in doing so, both I and my partner in conversation wanted to get to the bottom of my discomfort.

“Do you think in Dutch?” she asked.

“I think in Dutch when I’m speaking Dutch,” I responded. Others had joined the conversation and they all agreed that this was a very good sign that I had reached a strong level of language acquisition. And then the significance of this realization hit me. If I think in Dutch, my thought process is limited to my current Dutch vocabulary, which is a fraction of the vocabulary available to me when forming my thoughts in my native tongue.

Wow. Perhaps for others this sounds like a no brainer, but for me it was a small epiphany. Those pauses I feel when I’m searching through my limited Dutch vocabulary alter my natural flow of conversation, making me feel like a dimmed down version of myself. I’m not saying that I am always eloquent and witty in my native tongue, but I am definitely smoother and more confident than in Dutch.

As the evening progressed, I forgot about me and just listened and responded to those around me.  With the right mix of alcohol, ego release and a good night’s sleep that kept my brain sharp and engaged, I had moments when I was so emerged in the conversation that I completely forgot about the language barrier or the fact that I was speaking Dutch.

If there was a string of words that derrailed my understanding, I asked for a translation and then just as quickly returned to Dutch. And that is key–going with the flow, interjecting an English word here or there, and always returning to the foreign language.

At one point, I wisely realized my brain had had enough Dutch for one evening, and I started to say my goodbyes. The next day, instead of feeling tuckered out, my language muscle felt stronger due to the cerebral boot camp I had attended the night before. Not only that, but my little epiphany has put vocabulary development on the front burner and the words are bubbling in my mind, finding their place in my permanent collection.

Now if anyone can give me a tip on how to maintain this enthusiasm, I just may reach fluency afterall.

Make your Breasts Wet

When we moved to the Netherlands two years ago, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the Dutch language.  A lack of fluency compromises your ability to participate in a culture in the same way smoking too much dope impairs your senses; you know people are saying something that resembles words, but by the time your mind translates for you, the conversation has moved forward. With your language skills on low, you miss jokes. Eavesdropping is virtually impossible and the quick wit and dry humor that help define your personality in your mother tongue are taken away from you in one fell swoop.

It is quite tempting to remedy the situation by speaking English. After all, most people in the Netherlands, be they native Dutchies, Croatians or Spaniards can speak English reasonably well.  But to do so means you are missing out on the ego-threatening discomfort and embarrassment that can be the wind beneath your language-learning wings. If you make an embarrassing mistake in a language–asking for your butt instead of the bill, for example– chances are you won’t make that one again. Mag ik de rekening alstublieft?  (May I please have the bill?) Mag ik my bill alstublieft? May I please have my butt? (Bil = butt).

Luckily, through exposure and persistence, you reach a point where you understand enough of the words in a conversation to follow along. After two years of daily exposure to frog language, I have reached that level and it has given me a boost of confidence in my daily activities. I can now comfortably eavesdrop on Dutch conversations around me and participate knowingly in conversations.  That is until an expression is thrown into the sentence.

And the Dutch are not only very fond of their uitdrukkingen or sayings, they use them prolifically. There are whole books dedicated to the topic and they are also taught in Dutch courses. Seeing as the Dutch are a seafaring nation, many are nautical in theme. For example, if something was overlooked, we might say it’s fallen through the cracks. I’ve heard this used quite often for sweeping government programs that are supposed to help the most needy, but the most needy often “fall through the cracks.” The Dutch equivalent is “tussen wal en schip vallen” or to fall between the dock of a harbor and the ship. So just at the moment your ego is warming up at your level of comprehension, one of these babies is thrown into the sentence. And then your experience goes from head nodding and smiles to what in the ham sandwich did they just say?  I understand all of the words, but the meaning escapes me.

I was following one conversation swimmingly until this little ditty came along:”Maak jouw borst maar nat,” which translates to “Make your breast wet.” My mind quickly translated the words from Dutch to English, which left me staring oddly at the older church lady in front of me, wondering if she had a famous Amsterdam profession before joining the church. Before my imagination further discredited her character, I promptly interrupted her. “Wat heb je net gezegd? Maak jouw borst maar nat?” What did you just say? Make your breast wet? A round of chuckles ensued that made me feel culturally cute and ridiculous all at once. Luckily an explanation soon followed. This means be prepared for what’s to come; it’s going to be busy or a rough road ahead.

Every language and culture has its expressions and colloquialisms that can be confusing to foreigners. This is also true in the U.S. Even Americans can be caught off guard by expressions used by Americans from different generations or different regions of the country. For example, how would you tell a friend or family member who was overreacting to a situation to calm down? It depends on your origins.  If someone from Southern California needed to convey this information, they’d simply say, “Chill out man.” But if you’re from West Virginia, your word choice may be more like “Don’t go gittin yer gussie up.”

Did you read this whole blog post? Well aren’t you the cat’s meow!

Home way from home away from home

When we flew into Schiphol airport outside Amsterdam, I had a great sense of relief: Relief that the long plane ride was over, excitement to see my husband again, and the shoulder-relaxing sensation of being back home. And there I’ve said it. Home. Usually, that’s a term I reserve solely for central California, the place where I grew up and where I just spent the last five and a half weeks staying with family and friends. That is the place where people speak my language. Not only the English language, but Central-California-Coast English.

In this particular liberal leaning dialect, all know that the Monsanto Corporation, with their genetically modified crops, is evil; that gay rights are inalienable rights; that tomatoes and blackberries are things to be picked fresh off the vine and eaten immediately; that open space is a valuable commodity that should be preserved; live music a treasure to the soul, humor a form of religion, and speaking wittily, yet openly and kindly with others a way of life.

After spending five and a half weeks in California, I almost felt like I’d moved back home. Almost. The problem was, my sweet husband hadn’t come with us. He was back in The Hague, holding down the fort, working on the house, skyping and calling us every other day, and reminding my son and I by his mere absence, that we had another home on the other side of the ocean. The incredible sunshine, cultural familiarity, friends, family and all the charms that “my California” offers are far more compelling than the most creatively designed sales brochure or million dollar ad campaign. Nothing can sell you more than being understood, comfortable and wanted. And a big part of me wanted to stay.

Yet, now that I’m back in The Netherlands, I want to be here too. Not only because my husband is here and my job is here, but because our three-level apartment in The Hague has become our home away from home, the school Ezra attends his school and the people we’ve met our other community. Perhaps I’m a much simpler creature than I want to believe, and one of those hand crocheted little wall hangers that says “home is where the heart is” sums up my ability to transition so easily from one culture to the other. Or, maybe I’m just culturally slutty in that seventies, free loving, Crosby, Stills and Nash “Love the One Your With” way.

In either case, neither world is perfect. Here in The Hague I can ride public transport, walk or bicycle to just about anywhere I need to be, providing me the rare ability to avoid car culture altogether–a virtual impossibility should I live back in California. If I want the European experience, I only need step outside my door. If I want a European vacation, I need only a free weekend to venture by train to another city, or country, for that matter, and gaze upon breathtaking town squares from the 1600s, something I can also do in my “home away from home” town.

On the other hand, although Arie Jan picked up quite a bit of CCC English during his six years with me in California, I haven’t met anyone else who truly speaks my dialect. On top of that, I communicate most of the day in a foreign language I haven’t yet mastered, meaning that I feel held back, and unable to fully express myself. Yet there is something exciting about the daily challenge of language acquisition. It is as if my every waking day is a treasure hunt, and every person I interact with potentially the one to offer up a new Dutch word, that upon that day transitions from a word I keep forgetting, to one given over to my permanent collection. How would you weigh being understood immediately compared to a daily treasure hunt?

And more importantly, where is home? Where is my home away from home? And which city becomes my home away from home away from home? I would never want to be described as two-faced, because of course that expression holds only a very negative connotation. But I do have two worlds in which I reside. And when it comes down to it, I’m leaning much more heavily toward the promiscuous approach to my two cultures of Love the One your With.

Dutch Communication

Dutch Communication

May 11, 2012

I was considering joining a course offered through the church where I work called Werk en Balans (Work and Balance). Guest speakers from professional job coaches, successful businessman-gone-minister, psychologists and others would be giving lectures on seeking this coveted balance.

Seeing as my residence is attached to my workplace, you can imagine that I struggle with keeping my personal life and work life in proper balance. It seemed that the course might have been designed just for my situation. Except that it wasn’t. And it was in Dutch. And it was offered at my place of work. And I’m probably too busy to take on a course right now. But on the other hand, it could be interesting. And, it would push me out of the simple Dutch I use every day and into a language level needed for discussing deeper concepts. I state the obvious when I say my earnest interest was mixed with a healthy dose of reservations. Thus I did what I always do when I’m on the fence about something–talk about it.

I shared my thoughts with the course organizer, expecting some sort of discussion, but her rather curt response surprised me; “Well, you can always take it next year.”

That wasn’t the response I expected at all. I expected her to give me reasons why I should take it, encouragement even. Or, seeing as she is someone I interact with on a weekly basis, to perhaps confirm my suspicion that the course may be too difficult for my current level of Dutch. “You can always take it next year” seemed like being un-invited. Was this the case, or was I experiencing the subtle differences between Dutch and American communication styles? I decided to investigate.

The Dutch like to go for long walks. So the next time I was out with a Dutch friend walking from one small town to the next, I shared the scenario and asked if she thought I was being uninvited.

“Absolutely not,” my friend assured me. “The last thing a Dutch person wants to do is push someone into something, or try to change their mind. Because if I convince you to do something you expressed reservations about, then I suddenly become responsible for your happiness. We don’t like to put ourselves in that situation. We figure you know what is best for you, and we usually leave it at that.” Strange thing is, my husband had given a similar account of the Dutch perspective.

The conversation went further. I admitted that I was used to friends debating with me about an idea and even pushing a bit. You know, responses like this:

It will be a good challenge for you.
Just try it. It couldn’t hurt.
Perhaps you’re meant to take the course.
Oh, come on. Live a little.

Yeah. You’re busy, but you always ask a busy person when you want to get things done (is this backwards compliment just an excuse to guilt an already busy person into another responsibility?)

When I shared these types of responses with my friend, she became animated.

“A Dutch person would never say those sort of things. Those are definitely very American responses that would make many Dutch people uncomfortable.”

When I signed up for the course, I was warmly welcomed–well, as warm as a Dutch welcome gets on native soil. And the course did challenge and excite me. And I was too busy, but I did it anyway, and enjoyed the three out of four lectures I was able to attend. As you can see, it was I who convinced me in the end, using all the tactical methods to which I am culturally accustomed as an American.

Rommel Piet that Black Friday

As you were perhaps paging through a Martha Stewart magazine mid November for a little inspiration on a Thanksgiving centerpiece or savory side dish, we were gearing up for the steamboat arrival of Sinterklaas and his zwarte piet collective.

Sinterklaas with two of his zwarte Piet helpers

As you were unfortunately pulling another late night at the office to meet that pre-holiday deadline,  we were singing Sinterklaas liedjes in front of our son’s carrot filled boot. As you were contemplating the strange mix of joy, dread, love and chaos that is Thanksgiving, we were watching our son run to his boot to discover yet another present therein.

And finally, as you were regretting that last serving of sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, suddenly aware of how damned hot you were in your autumn-hued sweater, pushing your chair away from the table, I was asleep. In a different time zone. In a different country. Forgetting all about Thanksgiving.

How can an American forget about Thanksgiving? After all, it is a long standing tradition that ties back to our country’s origins when we broke bread with the Natives, accepted their food, and gave thanks. (Of course we’ll leave out the part where not long after we forgot the being thankful part and killed off the majority of the very natives who’d helped us through that long winter.)

And on an emotional, experiental level, wouldn’t those mostly pleasant memories of family gatherings, happy meals (before the term was co-opted by McDonalds), and those long, post meal walks and conversations in the crisp evening air pull at my heart strings no matter where I now roam?

Yet no strings were plucked. It wasn’t like I was completely clueless or had forgotten about my family. I had spoken to my mom earlier in the week and heard how one brother was heading North to the Bay Area with his family for Thanksgiving, the other brother heading North East to be with his in-laws and how mom was looking forward to the peace and quiet without having to cook anything for anyone.

On the other hand, maybe my subconscious mind decided to just skip that day.  Afterall, it was impossible for me to drive on over and spend Thanksgiving with my family, and the few articles I had recently read about the holiday had been less than compelling.

In the Huffington Post, I came across an article about the millions of cramped turkeys strung out on antibiotics awaiting the slaughter, and in the Los Angeles Times, I read some charming articles about how big name retailers moved Black Friday up to Thanksgiving evening–this time the slaughter being of sacred time to gather with family and friends in a celebration for what we already have.

But I have yet another explanation; In Holland ben ik al een beetje gewend. In other words, I’m getting a little used to it here. And a big part of getting used to a new culture is letting go, een beetje, of your own. Rather than letting one’s soul stretch its amazingly long and flexible legs across two continents, causing uncomfortable cramps in the soul’s calf muscle region, it is better to exist where you are. Or, as the songs goes, Love the One Your With. And just as with America, I am developing my own love-hate relationship with my be-here-now homeland away from home.

Being in the here and now, I must report the Sinterklaas madness! I thought Americans went over the top, but Sinterklaas gives Santa Claus a run for his presents. Kids can start putting their boots out by the fireplace, or the radiator should you be lacking a fireplace, as early as mid November and Sint comes to visit on and off all the way to December 5th. If Sint is particularly generous, that could mean 20 days of gift getting! You can imagine the kids are just a little worked up. And, Sinterklaas isn’t some secondary character. He’s everywhere! On the news. On the radio. He even has his own Sinterklaas website. But what really blows me away is what is happening at the schools across Holland.

Ezra was instructed to bring his boot to school this last Thursday because Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets were coming to visit that evening. I was just as curious as Ezra Friday morning, and we arrived earlier than usual. As we approached the school yard, we heard the chaos of 150 kids chanting various Sinterklaas songs, running, screaming, jumping and squirming. When the doors were opened, the children pushed their way in, in what could be likened to Black Friday foment, to get to their boots. Although the hallways were lit, the lights to the classrooms were out, and the teachers stood outside the classroom doors like happy wardens, waiting until all of the students had arrived before letting anyone in.

When the door was opened the expectant children surged forth into the biggest mess I have ever personally witnessed: tables were thrown on their sides, toys strewn throughout the classroom, black greasy handprints on the walls. The place was trashed. As I stared in shock, the only slightly phased children climbed over the mess toward their boots on the windowsill, their eyes on the prize. But the boots were empty. And although an empty boot is possible over this 20 day span–Sint can’t go to every house every night afterall–empty boots on such a joyous, expectant occasion can suggest only one thing: naughty, undeserving children. Ezra and I must have come to the same conclusion, as I saw that pre-howl look sweep across his face.

But just then, the teacher happened to notice a note from Rommel Piet taped to a still erect bookcase. It informed the children that he had been to visit and that after the children cleaned everything up, each and every one of them would receive a present. If you haven’t guessed already, Rommel means mess. Wat een rommel, as in, what a mess!

Rommel Piet Pays a Visit to the Classroom

The children reacted in many ways. Some continued to look on with consternation (Ezra), others jumped in and started cleaning up, others spontaneously broke into play. The parents were the last to join in, but after 20 minutes, every last chair was sitting upright and every last Lego, flash card and building block was put away.

Moral of the story? The children had to earn their present. They had to wade through the chaos, do their part to pitch in, and when everyone had helped to make it right, they would all be rewarded. In retrospect, as I made the uncanny connection that it was Black Friday on the westerly part of the Atlantic pond, it seemed that Rommel Piet was some sort of deep, brooding metaphor for the consumeristic state of my home country and the absurdity of Black Friday, or is that Dark Thursday?

Of course Sinterklaas brings his own breed of consumerism, as presents must be purchased, and Sint-specific treats such as pepernoten, chocolate letters and many other sugary goods are almost compulsory items for the shopping cart. But I am nonetheless smitten with the experience and the utter joy that the Sinterklaas season is bringing for our little boy. I do realize we are walking a fine line; on one side is over indulgence and blatant consumerism, and on the other,  a cultural experience that nurtures the imaginations of its young citizens. But please, don’t share this latter sentiment with the producers of those chocolate letters.