Why Trying To Speaking Dutch Feels Like Being A Spy

Speaking Dutch

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.

20 responses to “Why Trying To Speaking Dutch Feels Like Being A Spy”

  1. Andrew Tingle says:

    You need one of those umbrellas with the poison tip, a newspaper under the arm and a Carnation in the lapel – that’ll do it. Then again, as you are undercover, that might be a bad idea (don’t want to give the game away).

  2. JaG says:

    O but you are forgiven because Dutch is such a difficult language!

  3. roxanne says:

    You could be a spy in my country. ;)

    I just shopped in a European food store today and now know what it would feel like to be illiterate. The store owner asked if I needed any help…”No thanks”…I didn’t buy anything that didn’t have a picture on it.

  4. Aisling says:

    Maybe you could pretend you’re neither Dutch nor English by just being simply… mute. Look at the person and then mime between your ears and your mouth to convey that you are mute. Dress in a striped shirt and a beret if you’re really in a festive mood. Make large signs using a translator that says “Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch!” in both English, Dutch, and some other language, like Swahili to throw them off the scent. That should do it!

  5. BlondebutBright says:

    I’ve done the spy routine myself! You’re right, sometimes it’s successful, and you walk away triumphant. Other times – well, it’s rather embarrassing, to put it mildly.

  6. Invader_Stu says:

    Andrew Tingle – I could make them look like accidents some how and save my embarrassment. The downside is I would be wanted for murder.

    JaG – So maybe I would be a successful spy in another country :p

  7. ChickyBabe says:

    First, I love this cartoon!

    I often wonder do we ever really belong once we have left our birth country as an adult…

  8. Bart says:

    Likewise, I only pretend to read your blog as I don’t speak a word of English. I just stare at the screen and slowly scroll down. At the end I laugh, not too loud because then someone might ask what’s so funny.
    Since I don’t understand English, I didn’t write this comment either. It’s something I copied from another weblog and leave behind every time a come across a comments page.

  9. Invader_Stu says:

    Roxanne – I know that feeling too. Sometimes it can feel like being at school again and learning to read.

    Aisling – I’d be in trouble if they know sign language.

    BlondebutBright – Do you do the same thing were you try to stall for a few seconds to work out what they said too?

    ChickyBabe – I don’t know if you can ever truly fit in but I have felt how my perception of the country has changed as while I’ve lived here. It’s something I’ve heard a lot of people say they go through. A few months were everything is new and amazing. Another few months where they notice everything bad. Another few months after that were they start to feel levels out and they feel at home.

  10. Alan says:

    But if you were in a World War 2 spy movie in Germany there wouldn’t be a problem. All you would have to do was speak English with a thick German accent and you would fool everybody.

  11. Keith says:

    Picture this:
    The scene is a dark cellar. You are tied to a chair. The man who-would-be a-dentist asks,
    “Do you know vhat ve do to prisoners who vont talk?”

    Man in chair: “No?”

    Dentist: “SO, you von’t even tell me zat!”

    Then comes the terrible screams, echoing around the dark, dank room.

    Man in chair: “OK, OK, I’ll tell you everything, if only you stop that terrible screaming!”


    Oh, sorry about that, I got carried away for a moment. I knew I shouldn’t have left the medication off.

  12. vallyP says:

    I’d be with you in the torture chamber, Stu..lol…you made me howl with laughter because I’m often in that situation too. But, I have found something that helps me buy some time while I try to process what it is they’ve said…it’s the great “wat zegt u?”, and then they repeat the question. Mostly, this gives me the break I need to at least mutter something half intelligible, but I admit it, sometimes it doesn’t work either, and then I’m busted!

    Love the ‘third man’ style cartoon!

  13. Charlemagne Stavanger says:

    Exactly what I do when I’m not paying attention at someone who has been talking for days :D

  14. bill says:

    Dutch is a really hard language to learn. I have a few friends from Europe online who speak Dutch and I can’t converse with them for beans xD

    But if you’ve been living there for 5 years you must know a good amount of Dutch, right?

  15. vallyP says:

    Was just thinking that you could do a great comic routine about being an undercover Englishman, Stu. You have a terrific stroy telling gift and a knack for highlighting the absurdities of every day life as a foreigner in the Netherlands…hmmm I could just see you telling some of these anecdotes down the Irish pub…;-)

  16. Invader_Stu says:

    Bart – I only pretend to write it as well. I just hit keys and somehow they come out as words.

    Alan – I knew my Hairlip from ‘Allo Allo’ impression would come in handy one day.

    Keith – If the screaming was Dutch music it would work.

    VallyP – Thanks :) I used to use ‘Ik heb geen idae wat ye zegt’ a lot.

    Charlemagne Stavanger – Careful. They might ask you a question :p

    Bill – I know more then I am confident to speak I think.

  17. ellen says:

    My Dutch mom could interrogate St. Francis of Assissi and bring him to his knees, admitting he was Atilla the Hun.

  18. Invader_Stu says:

    I’d be in trouble if I met her

  19. Rose says:

    You need dutch shoes then you would blend in real well.

  20. Andy says:

    I know exactly how you feel mate. I have lived in Holland for six years now and hardly a day goes by that i don’t make a fool of myself. It wasn’t too bad when i lived in Noord Holland as i got pretty good at Dutch but now i live in Friesland i have to start all over again. Only today i stood at a petrol pump filling my car while a guy clicked and whistled at me in Frisian and all i could do was nod my head and smile. He was encouraged by this and i only escaped when i pretended to have filled the car and ran inside to pay…

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