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.