So we don’t really speak Dutch yet. Of course, we know the easy things like thank you and you’re welcome, hello, goodbye and a few other expressions that help us pass as polite people. Amsterdam is a bit tricky when it comes to learning Dutch because it is indeed true that almost everyone speaks English very well. You can get by rather easily without speaking any Dutch at all. However, such an existence though is not one that I’d recommend.
To explain what I mean, I’ll start with what I’ve learned about myself and about speaking other languages while living in Italy. Without trying to sound pretentious, I can say that I speak Italian pretty well. When I speak, I don’t have much of an accent. Actually I do have an accent, just not an American one. People think that I’m from Siena. That’s where I learned Italian and I learned to speak like the locals there. Of course, no one’s perfect. I’ll make a mistake every now and then and I’m probably not going to win any writing contests in Italian. Even after decades of living in Italy, I still learn new things all the time.
In the spring of 2000, I came to Siena through my University and discovered rather quickly that when placed in an environment that operates in another language, I was able to adapt relatively quickly. Frankly, I attribute a lot of this to an acute ability to not really care how badly I’m speaking. For me, the desire to communicate has always outweighed the fear of appearing to be idiot. The word idiot is probably too harsh. Far too often a people are considered to be less intelligent when they are learning a new language. I think that there is an important distinction that needs to be made regarding the difference between being an idiot and not speaking fluently. Anyone who’s lived in a new country knows to be patient with new speakers. It is usually those who have no experience with what it’s like to interact with others via a language that is different than the one that they grew up speaking. Don’t get me wrong, learning to speak another language takes time and work. There is no shortcut to fluency. Just like millions of immigrants do everyday, I did my homework and I practiced a lot, speaking a lot of bad Italian along the way.
Speaking Italian well has been absolutely been the most important thing that opened all doors of opportunity. Siena, being such a small, provincial town definitely amplified the amount of daily opportunities to speak Italian. There is a market in a place like Siena for someone who can be a bridge between languages and cultures. One has to be willing to live in a small town where the local culture is by far the most prevalent. It’s different in big cities where there are already lots of representatives from lots of different cultures. I have been offered all sorts of opportunities in Siena and a few were beyond my range of ability like the time when I was asked to translate for a man from India at a conference on micro-financing. Despite having warned the organizer up-front that speaking Italian and English didn’t necessarily qualify me to translate the specific material, my warning was met with the Italian equivalent of “C’mon, you can do it!” Shortly into the event, I admitted to the poor Indian guy that I frankly didn’t know what they were talking about and to my total surprise, he told me not to worry at all and that he didn’t really know why they invited him there at all in the first place. In other fields I’ve been able to hold my own and I’ve learned a lot about a lot of different things. I know a lot about food, wine, and local history because I’ve had the opportunity to translate for so many different people. Most of all I’ve learned a lot about approaching different cultures along the way.
Maybe the best thing about being able to operate with locals in the local language is that you get to see the culture from the inside. It’s almost like being a cultural spy. We take for granted what we know about our native culture because we grew up with it and things appear to be the way that they are as if they were laws of nature. To question the how or why we do things can be a strange thing. Through my knowledge of the local language, I’ve been lucky enough to experience Italian things from an Italian point of view. If you think that Italian food at the restaurants is good, get invited to a friends house for dinner cooked by his Mom or Grandmother and you’ll understand a whole new level!
Now in Amsterdam we’re back to square one. As I mentioned earlier, it is rather easy to move about and get things done since really everyone speaks English so well. That doesn’t’ mean that they go out of their way to translate everything for foreigners. We’re mildly confused most of the time. Whenever we’re at the park with Sean, other parents try to strike up conversation with us. Marianna tells them right away that she doesn’t speak Dutch and they carry on in English. My desire to fit in is too strong and I try to seem like I know what they’re saying. This inevitably ends up creating a rather awkward situation where I respond “yes” to a question like How old is he? Two different approaches. Both end up with a conversation in English.
At Sean’s daycare they speak Dutch to the children and they give us a minimum report on his progress in English. All of the rest of the information is in Dutch. We get emails from them in Dutch with instructions. We’ve already missed a few cues. During the first few months one of the teachers asked Marianna to sign up for a fundraising event where the parents volunteered to perform various tasks. They asked her to sign up for whatever she felt that she could do and told her that the list of activities and time-slots was at the front door. Of course, everything was in Dutch and most of the slots were filled. Marianna put her name down for a time that worked with her schedule and figured that despite not knowing what she was signing up for that the activities at a preschool event should be within her ability range. She has a Ph.D after all! It turns out that she signed up to paint children’s faces. This would be her first and probably last time painting faces. To make things even more challenging, parents paid for the face-painting, as it was part of the fundraising effort for the school. The kids could choose from a book of examples done by professionals. Valiantly, Marianna held her own up until that last child even after Sean ate the green face-paint marker. One child asked for an impossible-to-draw unicorn. Marianna gave it her best but the poor little girl left with an image similar to a slug that covered half of her face and a few tears to go along with it.
This past weekend, we were looking around for things to do. We saw that there was a festival in a park very close to our house. It was a theatre festival. Being aware that our Dutch might not be at the point to enjoy a full play, we looked at the website and it said that there would be plenty of activities for the non-Dutch speaker. After a quick bike ride, we entered the grounds and initially we were really impressed and excited. There were about 12 different tents set up by different theater troops. There were rides and all kinds of food stands. A great atmosphere on a sunny day. Things got a little more complicated when we tried to figure out how to see a show. The schedule didn’t appear to be arranged in a logical format that we could recognize. There was a central ticket desk and I asked if I could look at a program to see what would be appropriate for non-Dutch speakers with a one-year-old. He told me that the program was in Dutch and that he just sold tickets and couldn’t tell me about the different shows.
We felt slightly defeated as we watched everyone else bustle about between tents, so we had a beer and Sean played on the ground, under a tree. We were both reminded that we need to learn Dutch if for nothing else to live life in Amsterdam to it’s fullest. Marianna starts a course for beginners at the University in September. I’ll see if I can find a Dutch student studying at the University in Siena who might want to have conversation a few times a week with me in exchange for help with Italian or English. For now I’m speaking as much terrible Dutch as I can while in Amsterdam.