(or, The Cranky Americans.)
A few weeks ago we went to an informational meeting about this wonderful opportunity through the Delft government to take Dutch lessons for free. It was a long, painful meeting full of question-and-answer time, and followed by a series of forms we all had to fill out in Dutch…despite the fact that the meeting was attended by probably fifty people whose common denominator was not knowing Dutch.
This week we were summoned by letter to a meeting at the language school for everyone hoping to start this program. Tim and I basically swam there through this afternoon’s rain to attend. The language school was in a warehouse-like building on an industrial street outside the town center. Up the stairs we found ourselves in a room that brought instantly to mind my middle-school cafeteria (with similar smell) and joined a line to receive copies of the forms we turned in at the last meeting. The meeting could not start until every person had gone through the line. I can only marvel at the love in the Netherlands for forms, process, and above all, photocopies.
It’s very thorough. It’s not very fast. That’s the summary of getting stuff done here.
The meeting that followed can only be compared to an Entmoot.* A jolly Dutch man who had been happily wandering around before the meeting (asking people questions in Dutch) began addressing us all in the most mind-bogglingly undirectional way. He started by explaining a wide variety of social situations in which you might speak Dutch: At the water cooler. In a shop. With the government. With a friend… on and on. OK, OK, I’m thinking. We’re all here because we want to learn Dutch. He additionally explained that in France and Spain, they do not speak Dutch or English. So there, Dutch or English will not help you.
Shortly thereafter we received our first useful fact, which was the start date for classes, and then he jumped into reiterating a bunch of the information from the first meeting (which was beginning to seem pretty straightforward in comparison) about how after a year or so of study, you take the State Exam in Dutch, to see if you are proficient. In both meetings people really seemed to fixate on the exam: Where is the exam? What if I fail more than twice? etc.
I had the impression that if this meeting lasted a full twelve hours, the speaker would have considered that the best of all possible worlds. After we’d been in the room for nearly an hour, he revealed the class days and times for beginners: three nights a week for two hours and forty-five minutes each. (And then digressed in an unrelated direction about the different levels of Dutch proficiency. And then another woman who worked there suggested he explain more about the exam.) Meanwhile, Tim and I are whispering back and forth to each other:
Three nights a week? For a year? That’s ridiculous! Who has time for that?
So I raised my hand and asked, “What if three nights a week is too much? Is there another option?” And the man, for possibly the only time in the whole meeting, looked faintly displeased and said that he considers it a small amount of time to learn beginning Dutch. I looked around the room at all the other prospective students, thinking surely some of them have families… other commitments… like to eat dinner…
Then the man consulted his notes for a long time and started saying how occasionally the classes might meet in another location, and I began to imagine meetings just like this, three nights a week for two hours and forty-five minutes. I looked at Tim.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said.
“Me too,” I said.
“But it’s free.” We dithered about this in whispers for a couple minutes and looked back up when they began asking everyone to sign three identical copies of a contract. Part of me felt like we should try. But part of me knew that three nights a week of Dutch lessons (He never got around to telling us what the lessons would be like! Format? Class size?) in this vein was a recipe for resentment and trouble. After a hard day’s work, Tim could handle a night class one, maybe two nights a week. Not three. And I could give up cooking, relaxing with Tim at home, things with church or friends, probably one or two nights a week, for a good cause.
When the woman came to our table and asked for the contracts we held on to them, and went and found the representative from our original meeting. “We changed our minds,” we told him. Then we ran down the stairs and left everyone else to their paperwork, feeling (especially for two “good students” like us) a little rebellious and silly. The whole way home we talked about how crazy the meeting had been and agreed that surely, though they may be harder or cost more money, there are other ways to learn Dutch.
*So ridiculously fitting that the wiki entry on entmoot says it is similar to the Dutch ontmoet, “to meet.” Tolkien was so wise.