Dutch is a very difficult language to understand but I was determined to master it this time. Since our arrival I had only spoken in Dutch. I had not spoken a word of English (or any other non Dutch language for that matter). I was deeply proud of this achievement even if it meant that I had not actually said much of anything yet. It still counts.
We (my wife and I) were visiting a friend for a cup of tea and a chat (or in my case a cup of tea and the mumble of the occasional Dutch word). Also present was a young Dutch girl that neither my wife or I had met before. She had arrived shortly before us.
The three of them were now engaged in a conversation in Dutch about… something. It was going too fast for me to understand but I listened carefully none the less. I was not going to give up so easily. I was determined to understand. I was determined to stay focused. I was determined to follow their Dutch banter.
Two minutes later I had zoned out again and was studying the wall paper pattern on the opposite wall (the pattern was slightly miss aligned) while occasionally nodding and smiling at the points in the conversation when it seemed right to do so (this is an automatic coping mechanism of mine when it comes to Dutch).
I was eventually distracted from my wall paper assessment when I noticed that the young girl was looking directly at me. I looked over shyly. I had been caught. She had noticed that I was not even attempting to listen to the conversation any more. I felt embarrassed and foolish… But the look on her face said that she did not judge me for it. She smiled at me with understanding. I smiled back and felt relief. It was nice to know that someone understood how difficult it can be at times.
Struggling With Dutch
A short while later my wife also noticed that I was struggling and started to repeat the story that had just been discussed. She does this sometimes to help me with my Dutch. She will re-tell the story directly to me in summery form, still in Dutch but with all the difficult words filtered out and replaced with much simpler ones. To make things even easier she will talk very slowly and pronounce each word very carefully. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I just nod and smile some more.
My wife’s friend also started to join in by asking very simple questions in Dutch, carefully pronouncing each word and repeating the question even slower when I looked back in blank confusion. It was all starting to get a little bit embarrassing really.
The young girl gave me another sympathetic smile as I struggled to understand a question which had just been asked for the third time. It was the kind of smile that said, “I understand. It must be tough being an Englishman in Holland, surrounded by all these strange Dutch people constantly speaking Dutch at you.”
I returned her smile. I suddenly felt closer to this girl I had never met before. She was my ally now, someone who understood my daily struggle, someone who understood that it can be difficult to not understand what is going on the majority of the time. She was…
She was still smiling at me. Her smile was starting to look a little too sympathetic actually. My daily life is not ‘that’ much of a struggle. Her smile now looked like the kind that said, “Aaawwww. You poor little bunny. You brave little soldier.” It was starting to become a bit of a patronising smile in all honesty.
When Speaking Dutch Goes Wrong
This continued for some time as I was addressed in very basic Dutch. I became more and more confused by her reaction to all of this. Why was she starting to look slightly uncomfortable?
And then I suddenly had a horrible thought. Could it be? Oh no! I decided it was time to break my vow of no English. I needed to test something.
“That’s nice.” I responded the next time my wife repeated a comment at half speed so that I could understand it.
The reaction was immediate. A look of shock and confusion passed over the young girls face. There was a sudden silence. Sensing that something had just happened my wife looked between the two of us.
“My husband is English.” My wife informed the young girl having seen the look of confusion on her face.
I too had just realized that the young girl had not known that I was English. She had not even realized I was not Dutch.
“Oh,” the young girl suddenly exclaimed in embarrassment, putting her hands up to her mouth.
She had spent the last half hour under a very different impression.
“I thought he was mentally disabled.”