Tag Archives: Expats in the Netherlands

Je ne comprends pas

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When I told people that Tim and I signed up for a beginners’ French class, I got some wary responses.

“Why?” was a common one, perhaps alluding to the “who has time” as well as the “do you need it” aspects. My father, with some exasperated gesture, answered all of these other voices by declaring to my mother: “Because she wants to run off to Paris, of course.”

And he was not wrong.

Four years in the Netherlands did not make either of us a fluent Dutch speaker. We never took a formal class; it was easy to get by with English; and Tim didn’t need it at work. He decided pretty early on that he had other ambitions for that time period besides garbling Dutch. I kept at my technique of active assimilation and turned out to know quite a bit in terms of vocabulary, but with basically no concept of grammar or structure. I am a pretty good reader and can pick up on a bit of conversation by listening… and then I’ll answer you in English.

But it made a deep impression on both of us to leave the US and enter the multi-lingual world, where our friends switched easily from Dutch to French to Spanish to Portuguese to many, many other things. Foreign language classes in middle and high school were always a kind of whimsical study, like painting and geometry were for many of us: it was fun to try, but you didn’t really see yourself using it later on. One day a year students would bring in questionable renditions of foods from the country they studied, and generally someone got ill. If you had an especially active teacher and money, your class might have done a summer trip to Rome or Spain, but that never happened to me.

Yet I think I chose something that inadvertently positioned me well for travel: I took Latin. My contributions to Food Day were minimal, and it was weird to be studying a language that at most was getting some use in the Vatican… but those Romantic roots stuck and made me a good guesser of signage and menus in a variety of settings.

I was searching wildly for those guessing skills when our teacher entered the classroom for the first session this Thursday night, and commenced to do that infuriating immersion thing where it became clear that he intended to speak only in French. I could see a lot of frustrated faces when a vocal woman interrupted: “Excuse me, but isn’t this class for people who don’t know French?”

She was correct. The description had specifically indicated that this was a zero-level course, not even for those who took French 101 ten years ago.

Much to my relief, the instructor accommodated the general grumbling and switched to a blend of English and French, and for an hour and a half we learned to introduce ourselves, say our nationalities, and the complete lie “I speak French.” (We also managed to negate many things: “I am not called Jean.” “She is not German.” “He does not speak Russian.”)

It is a strange thing to learn a language as an adult, and somehow I wonder if it will work. Children don’t begin to speak by introducing themselves, running around saying “I am so-and-so” over and over again; nor do they then immediately decline the verb: I am / you are / he-she-it is/ we are /you are/ they are…

They speak in nouns, naming everything, as our niece Rachel did recently when, utterly excited, she pointed up at the sky and said: “A MOON!” This is a bit how I felt learning Dutch: “A fiets! Een zitbank!” Expression is an exciting thing.

The day I went to pick up my textbook for the French class, I found myself in a foreign-language bookstore in Harvard Square, where there were not only textbooks for learning languages, but books in those languages. I was floored. I had so latched on to the image of myself visiting France and speaking French, that I had completely forgotten the other door this knowledge would open: reading new books, and reading books in their original language. (I have already looked online and wondered: “Is it too soon?”)

If Dutch is a language with a lot of hard consonants, grinding together in your mouth, French seems to be bewilderingly fluid. Four forms of one verb sound the same, but are each spelled differently. “Say that at your normal pace,” a woman asked the instructor after he had coached us through a sentence of three distinct words. When he complied, we were appalled. Was that anything more than a vowel?

By guessing the meaning of the instruction “to spell,” I found myself put on the spot to spell my name in French. Scanning the pronunciation notes I’d just made, I drew a total blank. All I could think was: I forget how to spell my name. I considered shortening it. It felt like I took five minutes for six letters, and I’m sure that at least eleven out of thirteen people in the room had no idea what I said.

Perhaps to my ignorant surprise, there was quite a mix of people in the small class. One girl who looked like a high-schooler introduced herself as Mexican; two retired gentlemen sat at a distance and sometimes declined to answer the exercise questions. The majority were women in their twenties and thirties, and not all had English as a first language. Some of their accents seemed to lend their first-week French a natural loveliness, in comparison to my halting “juh… swee…”.

“Always,” our instructor lamented (to us all). “Always you are struggling with the negative form.” This is true, I thought: philosophically as well as linguistically. And the delight of calling things by someone else’s names is part of how we spark against that struggle.

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To the Next Expats

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The day before we moved, I got a comment on my blog from a new expat in Delft. As difficult as that day was, there was something that felt right about knowing that even as we were leaving, someone else was beginning the adventure.

Amid the flurry of goodbye festivities in which we lived during April, people repeated to us a few things that helped solidify for me what made our time overseas so great.

“Well, you really took advantage of it!” friends commented. They’d refer to all the vacations we took, all the places we visited. Some expats we know roll this way, too; others talk more about how they “meant to” travel. But we went for it, investing our money and time and ideas, and getting back growth and experiences that will always be with us. Though my list still feels long, we really covered some ground.

“You guys have a lot of friends” was another refrain we heard. We crowded our apartment for a going-away party with Tim’s colleagues. We said goodbye to people from church, from our neighborhood, who we met in a language group. We are incredibly blessed by the people we met in Europe—several of whom, in those final days, packed a truck, carried heavy furniture, and played the endless game of Tetris required to get our couch down the staircase.

Our positive experience could be distilled into three parts:

1. We traveled

2. We had wonderful friends

3. We had meaningful personal and work experiences. (For me, the opportunity to establish my own structure and write was invaluable.)

So, to those just on the ground…

Open your home. The way we got to know people was by initiating things, often at our place. We hosted a Thanksgiving party that grew every year. We hosted BBQs on our tiny deck, and Christmas with people like us who didn’t go home, and potlucks for Easter and random Saturdays. Sharing your home builds friendships.

You have to register with a huisarts (equivalent of US primary care). But ask around and get a recommendation from someone with whom you feel simpatico. We took the first recommendation we heard and went with the International Health Center in den Haag, believing that we would never make it with a “truly Dutch” huisarts. I’ll spare you my total feelings, but this quickly became annoying, given the distance from our home; our experience there was not entirely positive; and plenty of the staff are Dutch, anyway. It did not feel like we had teleported to an American doctor’s office.

So much of the expat life comes down to recommendations: A haircut. A restaurant. A tailor. A tax pro. A doctor. You’ll learn whose recommendations match your preferences and your budget.

[While I’m on it? Haircuts were the bane of my Dutch existence before Rebecca recommended Kinki in Delft. Thank you, thank you, thank you.]

Before we moved overseas, we had every medical checkup in the book, passed with flying colors, and fully intended to not need much doctoring for the next three years. Well, you can’t count on that.

In four years we had way more experience with the Dutch medical system than I ever would have imagined, for issues ranging from cavities to ear infection to unknown pains to an outpatient surgery. Whether you come from the US or from Bolivia, learning to trust a doctor who doesn’t “feel like” the system you’re used to is very, very hard. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I’m not going to say I never got irrationally teary with a secretary or snapped at someone from the insurance company because I just didn’t understand them, or because their bedside manner seemed nonexistent.

Have your taxes done by a pro. In the US, we always did our own taxes. So for a brief amount of time in our very first year abroad, we really believed we were going to martyr our way through the Dutch-language-only Dutch tax forms—when we barely speak conversational Dutch, let alone legal Dutch. We had a great recommendation from a German-American expat couple for a place that really helped us, not only ensuring that we did things “to code,” but alerting us to a benefit we didn’t know we were qualified to receive. The cost was far less than other “expat specialists” we’d found. The website is: http://www.confianza.nl

Question Google Translate. Always ask a person. The more Dutch I learned, the more I realized that Google Translate (a god-send the first month) produces garbled English translations that often have lost something significant. Or read like a nonsense rhyme.

The more botched translation has been a part of your life, the more meaningful you may find this video.

Don’t go home all the time, but go home when it matters. We didn’t use all our vacation time to go home to the US. Why? Because we moved to Europe. We saw our families about once a year, which was not always enough, but overall we all communicated in other ways and stayed close.

Then, in the past six months, both of my grandfathers passed away; and both times we were left sitting at a computer scanning travel websites and asking the tacky-sounding “was it worth it” question—to pay (if we both went) $1000+ to fly home on short notice, to attend a funeral. One of those times, the travel home would necessitate canceling a trip we’d planned with friends. The decisions seemed confusing—and then we would come out of the fog and realize: Duh. We go home.

Travel, travel, travel. Listen to all those people who are telling you what a “wonderful chapter of your life” this is; or (if applicable) how free you are now compared to what may lie ahead (kids, mortgages, repatriation). Go and see.

Keep a record. Make photobooks. Keep a journal. Friends of ours make a little iMovie video whenever they return from a trip. Write a blog! (I’d love to read it.) When we moved overseas, this blog was as many expat blogs initially are: a way to keep family and friends updated, and share some pictures of your new life. But over time I began receiving comments from strangers, and connecting with people I’d never met. The expat experience is an instant link.

Some of my earlier advice to expats can be found on Expats Blog at: http://www.expatsblog.com/contests/24/the-long-way-home

 

 

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The Last Queen’s Day

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It’s a really good thing that today is not tomorrow.

I’m looking out the window watching pouring rain, and tourists intrepidly making their way to Delft centrum with only drugstore umbrellas as a shield, and locals biking in full rain gear (or not).

This would be terrible weather for a yard sale.

Tomorrow is Queen’s Day, a holiday I’ve written about before; but this year it’s different: on Koninginnedag 2013, the Dutch Queen Beatrix will abdicate, passing the throne of the Netherlands to her son, the about-to-be King Willem-Alexander, and his wife Maxima.

Politically this doesn’t mean a ton. The Dutch monarch is primarily ornamental, providing a good public image (one hopes) and meeting regularly with the Prime Minister. Beatrix is 75, and she’s been the Queen since 1980. I was surprised, after seeing her pleasant face everywhere for the past month, to learn that earlier in life she was quite the controversial figure here. In 1966, which for most people was not nearly enough distance from the occupation of WWII, she married a German diplomat who had served in the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) during the war. Her wedding in Amsterdam was marked by public protest, as was her investiture (the Dutch don’t do “crowning”) in 1980. She and her family survived a Queen’s Day assassination attempt in 2009, the motivation for which was never fully explained.

This weekend I asked a few Dutch friends how people feel about the whole changing-of-the-guard. It’s all over the shops and news and media. (There has even been a mild to-do about a song that was commissioned for the investiture of Willem-Alexander, released, generally disparaged, and revoked by the embarrassed artist—before it was decided the song will be used as planned.) But is there an emotion about the event, or just another excuse for parties and orange sunglasses?

The florist on our street, ready for tomorrow

The florist on our street, ready for tomorrow

My twenty-something Amsterdam friend told me that to her it is “the last thing” on her mind, but to her parents’ generation, the Queen is important. Another young friend shared a similar sentiment: he doesn’t feel any connection to the royal family. A third friend, a little older than the first two, told me it’s important that the royal family keeps up a respectable image. They are, after all, the face of the country, and so Willem-Alexander had better not be embarrassing anyone. Beatrix was a good figurehead, and so she won people over over time.

In comparison to the royal family of England, the House of Orange-Nassau mainly stays out of the tabloids. They have a reputation for living quietly and in a reasonably (for a royal family) down-t0-earth manner.

There is absolutely nothing down-to-earth about the commercial orange mania available in the stores right now, and so this weekend I tried to capture some of it.

Douwe Egbert's coffee offering a koningsblend (king's blend)

Douwe Egbert’s coffee offering a koningsblend (king’s blend)

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I have to admit I wondered who was buying all these commemorative books (there were even commemorative greeting cards you could send your friends)—and then I noticed the two women waiting in front of me in the stationery store each had two of them.

You might think this is a coincidence, but I'm certain it's not.

You might think this is a coincidence, but I’m certain it’s not.

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"Abdication Beer" at Flink Gegist

“Abdication Beer” at Flink Gegist

Abdication Hagelslag (breakfast chocolate)

Abdication Hagelslag (breakfast chocolate)

And last but not least: the item that, in my opinion, takes the orange cake:

IMG_8342Albert Heijn (grocery store) is selling a packet of ingredients that you can use to make a “King’s Soup.” Basically, it includes an assortment of orange food products:  a carrot, an orange pepper, an orange, curry powder, and I forget what else. There was a recipe printed on the back. I suppose it would be orange. I’m concerned it would be horrendous.

I’m not sure what we’re doing tomorrow—we’ve mentioned everything from going to Amsterdam to staying home to scouting the yard sales for a comfy chair. Last year the Queen somehow managed a sunny, warm day—let’s hope the King can call in a similar favor.

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