“Goal Number 1: Learning Dutch”
“Het tuin is moi” was the only Dutch phrase I knew when I boarded the plane to Schipol Airport. And to make maters worse, the phrase wasn’t very helpful. I knew knowing how to say “The garden is beautiful” might yield a few amused smiles from my new host families, but it would hardly be of use when I had to find a bathroom or needed to eat. It was something, though. At least I had made an effort. After all it wasn’t easy finding learn-it-yourself language tapes for Dutch. Less than 19 million people in the world speak the very guttural sounding language, and very few of those 19 million lived in Iowa. I learned what I could before I left, but I knew from the start that learning Dutch would be one of my biggest challenges.
It took me until Thanksgiving to really get the hang of speaking and understanding Dutch. I had taken a ten day language and culture class a few days after I arrived in The Netherlands that late July. Although the class was really fun and helped me network with other exchange students from around the world, I don’t think I really learned much Dutch. It was the first of my four host dads who really helped push me along—may God bless him for his patience. My notorious stubbornness is what pushed me the other half of the way. Several pounds of dark Dutch chocolate and tasty glasses of throat-soothing milk should also be properly thanked for my slow but steady progress.
Dutch is tricky, and that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t follow the same rules as English, and it sure as heck doesn’t sound like it either. During the first few days of my exchange I remember feeling like I had been plopped down in the middle of a very foreign land full of extremely tall and very kind tea and cheese addicts who spoke something that sounded more like an even blend of gibberish and throat clearing than anything that could possibly resemble a language. With some patience and an eager-to-learn ear, what initially sounded like a steady stream of hacking and spiting, slowly turned into individual words.
By the end of the third day with my host family, I was able to pick out a few words like “moi” “leuk” and “gezeleg” which seemed to pop up frequently in conversation. I also noticed that the language had a rather chipper gate as the happy words joined together to make joyful sounding phrases. The cheerfulness seemed to match the meaning of the words I could recognize from conversations--- beautiful, nice, and cozy—and were also a close reflection of the kind folks who were helping me out. By the time I had really gotten the hang of the language a few months later, my Dutch friends would laugh at me when I said their language was beautiful. I was quick to find out that the Dutch are among the first to acknowledge their language sounds a bit strange.
With only a few days under my belt I knew I would be okay. And with a lot of patience, I could learn the language. I had comfort in knowing I had plenty of friendly faces to help me along the way and to get me through some of those awkward and very embarrassing language acquisition moments. I was right too. I did learn the language. Granted, I was far from perfect at speaking Dutch, and my knowledge did come at the cost of several embarrassing mistakes and lots of frustrated moments. By the end of my eleven month stay, however, I could get my point across and understand about 85% of what I heard. I like chalking this off as a “win,” considering I only knew how to compliment someone’s garden, when I first started my journey.
Of all the things I took away from my exchange year, I was probably most proud of the progress I had made in learning the language and all of the life lessons that went along with learning it. It wasn’t always easy, though, nor was it always pleasant. I had several moments along the way in which I wanted to throw my hands up and walk away or crawl under a rock and die of embarrassment. Those were the moments that taught me the most, though, and the moments that still stick with me today.
One such moment happened towards the end of my stay. It was the beginning of May, right around my 19th birthday and about ten months into my exchange. My parents were in town for a ten day visit and it was my goal not only to show them around The Netherlands but to also show off all of the fancy new things I had learned about life, culture, and of course, the language.
To celebrate my parents’ visit, all of my host families, my parents, and I made a dinner reservation at one of the finest restaurants in Oosterbeek, the town where I had been living. I had been there just one other time with the Bakkers, my third host family, and had fallen in love with the place right away. The restaurant was located in the historic Hartenstein building which automatically gave the place a rich sense of class that so often comes from such places in Europe. It was a more contemporary sense of class, however, with modern warmth radiating from its trendy gold and pumpkin orange painted walls and dangling, blue LED lights bringing the place into the 21st century. The food smells from the restaurant also were a source of warmth. Smells of slow cooked meat and a smorgasbord of other delicious sights and smells would win the heart of any person who walked in the door.
The restaurant was also very unique. Not only was the décor inviting and the food delicious, but the restaurant’s theme is what drew in so many from so far. The restaurant’s theme was based on Broadway musicals, and to accentuate that idea, the wait staff entertained their patrons by spontaneously bursting into famous American Broadway tunes. The town was extremely proud of their very classy and talented singing waiters and affectionately referred to them as “The Hartenstein Singers.” Considering that my mom and I are both avid fans of Broadway Musicals and that the restaurant oozed modern European class, it seemed to be the only fitting place to celebrate my parents’ visit and my accomplishments. Not to mention that the waiters sang in English, which would be a nice break for my parents’ strained American ears.
After we were all seated and had a chance to settle in at our table, the waiter came around to take our orders. I remember mulling over which delectable dish I wanted to try. Would it be the slow roasted spring chicken, or maybe a nice beef steak, so rare in Europe due to the Mad Cow disease at that time? I was towards the end of the table, so I had plenty of time to decide. This was a great thing considering I was also proudly helping my parents decipher the Dutch menu.
As the waiter finally got to me, I decided to show off some of my newly-conquered Dutch. “Mag ik het Pipe Coucken, austublief?” I said, pronouncing the word “Pipe” just as it sounds in English.
As I was ordering, Pieter, one of my host dad’s sitting next to me, was taking a long sip of water. The instant the word “pipe coucken” slipped out of my mouth, he began choking on his water and nearly spit it across the table. Then came the laughter. My host brother Wiecher was also sitting near by and had heard my order. He instantaneously burst into a loud laughing fit, while the others stopped and stared. My parents looked dumbfounded. What on earth was so funny? The waiter did everything humanly possible to keep a straight face. I was just praying he wouldn’t burst into some sort of song to bring even more emphasis to my mistake.
At this point, I had quickly realized I must have made a mistake when I ordered. Ten months into my stay, I was somewhat used to making either cultural or language-related mistakes and could spot the signs of a blunder from miles away. Although, I had made a million such mistakes throughout the year, the embarrassment never really lost its sting, especially not when those mistakes happened in a fancy restaurant in front of parents I was trying to empress.
I quickly turned to Pieter and asked what I had done. He struggled to regain his composure. In his heavily accented English, so my very curious parents and I could all be sure to understand, he said, “Well, Emily, in Holland we pronounce the Dutch word p-i-p-e is as pip. The proper way to order the spring chicken is to pronounce it as pip coucken.”
“Oh,” I said, “pip, not pipe. I get it.” Whew, it wasn’t that big of a mistake. Or was it?
“So, Pieter?” I asked.
“Yes” he replied, still struggling to stifle his giggles.
“What was so funny, then?”
“Well, Emily,” He said, still in his very direct English. “You just ordered a penis chicken, instead of a spring chicken.”
That was it. Everyone lost it. Everyone was howling. The waiter, all of my host families (who were all paying attention by this point), my parents, and even a few strangers from the nearby tables were in absolute stitches. After turning as red as the tomato sauce on a nearby table, I too began to laugh. I think I even ripped off a few of my famous snorts, which inevitably made the whole place erupt with laughter.
Even though I was embarrassed, I had learned from my many mistakes before how important it is to just roll with it—to laugh, learn, and then move on. Had I crawled under a rock and died of embarrassment every time I made a mistake while trying to learn Dutch, I would have never been able to make as much progress as I did. One of the most valuable lessons I learned while living abroad was not to take myself too seriously, especially when learning something new and foreign. I learned that learning can be tough, and at times embarrassing, but if you give up before the lesson is learned, you won’t get very far.