I lived with my parents until I moved to Holland. This made moving out a double shock. Not only was I going out into the world by myself for the first time but I was also doing it in a completely different country. I had to learn to cook for myself (or choose from less appealing options such as McDonalds or starving) but at the time I could hardly even boil an egg.
My early cooking attempts met with varying levels of success, including giving myself food poisoning from under cooking chicken. Since then my need for a stomach pump has reduced as my kitchen skills have improved. However there is one simple food item that I have not yet been able to master. Many of my attempts have met with bitter failure both figuratively and literally. For some unknown reason I am unable to cook rice properly. The mysteries of this simple ingredient continue to elude me and something always goes wrong.
During my first attempt I discovered that rice expands as it boils. Unfortunately this revelation came when it was too late to do anything about the oozing volcano of rice that was slowly pouring out over the kitchen.
One of my more recent attempts was awarded the title of worst tasting rice ever. At the time this statement seemed like an unfair over reaction. How bad can rice possibly taste? When I sampled it for myself I found nothing wrong. In fact it was light, fluffy and all the other things that rice should be. At least it was for the first few seconds before the hidden after taste kicked in. Suddenly it tasted as if a sickly rat with bad breath had decided to end its life by jumping into the boiling pot of rice when I had not been looking. Luckily it was only because I had accidentally let all the water boil away.
Rice is my kitchen nemesis and the source of much amusement for my friends (as long as they don’t have to eat it). The sound of rice boiling in water might as well be the sound of mocking laughter.
However, there can only be so many ways to get rice wrong. One day I will get it right even if I have to burn the kitchen down doing so. Then I’ll eventually be able to move onto the next challenge, boiling an egg.
Me: “Have you got any plans for the 19th? Your Dad is trying to arrange something.”
Me: “No, nothing at the moment. Why? What is he organizing?”
Mum: “I’m sworn to secrecy but we’re going to book tickets and it should give you another funny story for your blog.”
Me: “Considering that most of my funny blog entries involve me getting trapped in lifts, breaking bones or some other kind of physical injury, should I worry about what you have planned?”
After five years of living in Holland I have come to a conclusion that has not been easy to accept. I have been trying to ignore this revelation for some time but I must finally accept it. I would be a terrible spy. The child in me has taken this as a heavy blow. During my day to day life in Holland I regularly find myself in situations that would result in my cover being blown if I was an undercover spy.
It can happen in a supermarket queue, on a train platform or any other place where random people gather together in close proximity. It might begin with an observation about the weather, a comment about something amusing or any random topic that can spark a conversation between strangers. All that matters is as soon as someone says something to me in Dutch that I do not understand I only have a moment to decide; Apologize and tell them I don’t understand or react as if I did understand (and hide my identity as an Englishman).
Being honest usually results in a look of sympathy with out the comment being repeated in English so I often try to hide my lack of linguistic skills with a smile and a nod. It’s a simple plan designed to avoid the awkward moment but it usually back fires.
The fake response is sometimes so convincing that it starts an actual conversation. Although it is sometimes possible to continue this sham for a short while ‘something’ usually happens that brings the whole charade crashing down to the ground.
Even if it’s impossible to understand what they are saying the rising inflexion at the end of their sentence is unmistakable. They just asked a question, a question that demands an answer, a question that can’t be answer with frantic nodding and smiling unless I want to appear very simple and slightly scary.
If I was living in a World War 2 Spy movie (in Germany) it would probably not be long before I was dragged away to a basement to spend sometime in the company of a man who has an unhealthy interest in dentistry. However, my Dutch language skills would not be a complete loss. If my interrogator asked if I ‘had a bonus card,’ or ‘wanted mayonnaise on my fries,’ as he was pulling teeth I would be able to reply convincingly and still hide my true identity as an Englishman.
Luckily this extreme example has not happened yet but my failed attempt at blending in does mean I course myself much more embarrassment then I would have. This is why I would be a terrible spy but maybe it also means the Dutch would make great interrogators.
“The bar is on new new street? There is actually a street called new new street? Cool.”
(Commenting to Dutch co-worker)
“New New Street? Floris your people are dumb.”
“And that’s coming from an American.”
I am a criminal. I have broken the rules of our society and paid the price. People will judge me for the rest of my life. As I walk down the street I already feel their disapproving eyes on me and I hear their hushed whispers to each other.
“Look… there goes the guy who forgot to buy a new train ticket.”
My crime is forgetfulness. Anyone who travels on the train with a monthly pass knows it is all too easy to forget it needs renewing during the early morning half asleep walk to the train station.
I only realized my mistake when I heard the familiar call, “Kaartjes Alsjeblieft,” from the train conductor who had entered the carriage to check everyone’s tickets.
I am an honest person. I didn’t try to pass my ticket off as being in date. When she approached me I apologetically explained my mistake and felt rather stupid. From the look on her face that followed I instantly knew I was in trouble. She was looking at me like she had just caught a hardened criminal stealing charity money from a children’s hospital. Apparently I had also taken their teddy bears just to be extra mean and make them cry.
“You don’t have to tell me if you do not wish to but why did you not buy a ticket?” She asked me with a stern face. It didn’t have the same ring as “you have the right to remain silent” but she said it as if trying to achieve the same level of seriousness and authority. Obviously no one messed with the train service when she was on patrol.
Over the course of the ‘telling off’ she asked me the same question several times. It was as if she was looking for a hole in my story, waiting for me to make one slip that would bring my whole web of lies (as she believed) crashing to the ground.
“I didn’t realize it had run out at the start of the week.” I told her truthfully. “I forgot to…”
“The start of the week?” She interrupted through clenched teeth. “You’ve been traveling with out a ticket for more then one day?”
She made a move that suggested she would have reached for a can of mace if she had one. From the way she talked I was half expecting to end up face down on the floor as she forcefully handcuffed my hands behind my back.
Suddenly the train carriage began to feel like a police interrogation room. I thought about asking for a lawyer or turn snitch and give up the names of other people with out tickets. There was no way I was becoming someone’s bitch in the slammer. Luckily I only had to pay a fine and I could put the plans for my prison break on hold.
I can live with the fact that I had to pay a fine for forgetting my ticket (even though I would have rather kept my money obviously); it might help me to remember next time. However I did not like the smug way the train conductor acted during the whole event. I was obviously a liar and a thief in her eyes. I got the impression she had failed the police force entrance exam and was taking it out on me.
The moral of the story: Never equip train conductors with firearms. Innocent people will die if they have had a bad day.