Amsterfam: A Woman Like Me

From London to Amsterdam with three kids

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The six year old has upgraded into the seven year old. The reboot features roller-skates, a birthday brunch and a cake to share with her classmates from a Dutch recipe book that could have been dictated by Father Jack. Witte basterd suiker! Slagroom! Bakknikkers! Is this what it’s like to be on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares?

Seven, I think as I prepare the slagroom whilst being shouted at by the recipe book, is the first age I can clearly remember reaching. Seven was the Big Time. All I wanted was a fancy dress party and to not be ginger. Now, at 37, I’m desperate to remain ginger and I live in constant fear of fancy dress parties. It’s funny how we change.

Moving countries accelerates change. Take My Lawyer, for example, who has finally embraced his beard. Every now and again back in London, he’d grow a holiday beard, then shave it when he went back to work, and I’d be sad. But here in The Netherlands, office attire is casual and he ran over two of my kids, so he has to do what I say. Amsterdam is progressive, says the woman emotionally blackmailing her husband to remain bearded.

The seven year old has also changed, from the scared six year old who cried herself to sleep every night for the first two weeks of Dutch school last September. She became fluent in Dutch within six months, and confident in eight. On her birthday at school, she did a magic trick for her class. This was unimaginable back in those early days, when I’d lie with her at night, listening to her hiccupping sobs even as she slept. “When I am older,” she said recently, “I will travel to all the countries, and learn all the languages.” Of course; why not?

Whilst it’s great that the kids have picked up Dutch so quickly, it has created a chasm in my understanding of their experience at Dutch school. One afternoon, the seven year old emerges from school tear-stained, having accidentally damaged a plant for which she and a friend are jointly responsible.

“What did your friend say?” I ask, doling out post-school cookies to my children and several other kids who do not belong to me. I freeze, the way you are meant to with wasps, until the scavengers disperse.

“She just said “het maakt niet uit, hoor,” replies the seven year old, helping herself to more cookies.

I wince. Hoor? Jesus Christ – I knew that Dutch kids swore more than we sensitive, middle-class Brits might be used to, but I don’t know that we should be acclimatising to that kind of language.  And the rest, het maakt niet uit? My beginner’s Dutch tells me that hetmeans it, maaktmeans make, nietmeans not and uitmeans out… .So: it makes not out? It outmakes? It’s unmade?

“What… did she mean?” I ask.

“It doesn’t matter,” sniffs the seven year old, looking away. I guess she doesn’t want to talk about it.

I try again. “I just want to know….?”

“IT DOESN’T MATTER!”

And she runs off to join a group of girls on the climbing frame, who, I suppose, are all swearing at each other like drunk marines on shore leave. Both the eight year old and the four year old have also disappeared, and I find myself alone in the playground with a pile of schoolbags at my feet. I root around in my bag for a cookie. They’re all gone.

The city of Amsterdam has a love-hate relationship with my kind. Expats bring in the business and spend a lot of money, but they also often benefit from tax breaks not available to the natives. We tend not to learn Dutch; not the English speakers, anyway. We might be able to order our artisan lattes, but we can’t actually speak Dutch in a way that plugs us into the landscape. But, more and more, English is no longer considered to be a foreign language in The Netherlands, so really what’s the point, when everyone can speak English? We expats will tell you that the Dutch lovespeaking English! Give those Dutchies a chance to shine.

But, you know. Het maakt niet uit, hoor.

Amsterdam is rightly proud of its English proficiency, but she also wants us expats to, I don’t know, read the paper once in a while. Maybe vote in local elections. Get involved in the community. So the Amsterdam municipality has put in place free language courses for its new citizens who do not currently enjoy a gainful employment deserving of a tax break. There are other conditions that I circumnavigate because I’m still able, for the time being, to cling to the sinking lifeboat that is my EU citizenship. Once Britain leaves the EU, this right will disappear, but at least I will be able to buy both straight and bendy bananas when I visit my mum in Streatham.

So, back in December, I took a test, to level my Dutch proficiency and place me in the correct class.

“We never normally have women like you here,” said the woman testing me, before placing me at the beginning of the intermediate group.

“Oh!” I replied, which seemed the only response possible, given the array of women like me who might be like me on any given day. A woman of thirty-seven? A white woman? An unemployed woman? A woman with kids? A woman likely to be pulled over for crossing the road? An anxious woman? A woman who forces her husband to grow and maintain a beard? A woman who blogs? A woman who winces when anyone asks her, “So what do you do?”

This new class is a commitment. Two mornings a week, for six months. There is homework, a portfolio to amass and penalties for unexplained absences. On my first day, three things become apparent about my classmates. Firstly, most of them have been here for several years already. Secondly, most work in English, which has held back their Dutch. And thirdly, most are not native English speakers. I am the only student with just one language under her belt. Native English speakers are exceptionally pedestrian here. Buying my coffee before the class one morning, I have to wait several moments for a practically salivating barista to ask a French couple for the correct pronunciation of croissant au beurre. When I order in Dutch, the barista half-smiles and replies in English, “Cheers. Anything else?”

If I learnt anything from the beginners’ class back in September, it was that it’s not a good idea to create a fun persona in Dutch Class. I know, I know; it would have been better if my biggest takeaway was A Lot Of Dutch, but I was too busy making apologetic jokes about Brexit. It’s a lot of pressure, being a woman like me, the funny one. You have to smile all the time, which hurts after three hours. This time around, I’m cultivating a Reserved Brit persona. When it is my turn to talk in class, I am succinct and slightly hostile. It is a good way of hiding the fact that I’m one of the worst conversational Dutch speakers in the group, with the added bonus that no one will want to talk to me afterwards: “So, Rude British Lady, what do you do?”

I’m crap at speaking Dutch, but I’m good at reading it, and quick to pick up grammatical rules and verb conjugations. This suits my in-class persona; attention to detail, nit-picky, pedantic. Of course she is good at verbs. But wait; I really am good at verbs. Is this the kind of woman that I am?

After a few weeks of hearing my new teacher throw around the word hoor like a drunk at the end of a bar, or a President of the United States, I finally ask.

“What does it mean?” I tilt my head and raise an eyebrow, like Judy Dench’s M.

“It can’t be translated,” she says. “It means though, or right, or okay, or like. Something like that.”

“So,” I say, with a Princess Diana head bow, “Het maakt niet uit, hoor…”

She shrugs. “It means, it doesn’t matter though. Something like that.”

Of course. That’s what seven year old told me, but I didn’t understand at the time. It doesn’t matter. So much doesn’t matter, when you are learning a new language; you take what you can from each exchange, but you can’t learn everything in one go. You are who you are, and you learn accordingly. You can’t change your identity.

Unless you are our four year old, whose identity we did have to change before he started school. Because we found out the diminutive of his name – the version of his name that we always called him – meant something in Dutch:

BALLSACK.

If your identity is BALLSACK, definitely change it.

No one will judge you, Ballsack.

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4 Comments

  • Good luck with your language lessons Lauren. Reading this may even be the push I need to sign up for the class I’ve been saying to myself I must do for such a long time… (I have a feeling verbs may be my thing too- and everyone else will also be English speakers learning Spanish/ German/ Italian (I haven’t decided yet) so I may just have to be ‘the pedantic one’;-)

    Thanks for another great post

    • Thanks Shona – do it do it, sign up for a class! Do you have Duolingo on your phone? That’s a great starting point, it’s a free app on which you can set your own goals. Learning a language has flipped a switch in my brain, I can literally feel the cogs turning again for the first time in a long while! Obviously my kids are kicking my ass which is slightly demoralising…. but more recent studies are showing that it’s the immersion that give kids the advantage, not just their young brains

  • Outstanding piece Lauren.. I’m still laughing. I have also been the only English person in class.. back in Pavia ( Northern Italy) in 2000.

    I had a headache for 3 months and all time low self esteem as my 3 kids became fluent while I felt increasingly more stupid. It’s a terrible loss of power when your kids understand and speak a language better than you do! We spoke as a family in English at home and they spoke Italian at school and out with their friends.

    They also learned French, Spanish and Latin at High School here. They were also taught Philosophy, History of Art and Maths which was more like degree level! I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of it…

    It was hard for them during that first year though on a social level. The 13 year old son refused to participate in class at all for the first 2 weeks and got into a fight with another boy.. brutta figura for sure. I had to attend a meeting at school about it which I pretended to understand

    I taught English for the first few years which held me back even further as Italians love the opportunity to practise their spoken English so attempts to speak Italian were usually thwarted.. I was wondering if you’ve made friends with any Dutch women and how friendly they are?

    Years ago I wrote about all the mistakes I’ve made. Second person singular ‘you’ has a polite form ‘lei’. This is very important if you want to be polite in certain situations.. I think I called it ‘There’s norhing like a good lei’ I might dig it out and post it here sometime. Keep up the good work Lauren. You have a loyal collective of readers who admire you and look forward to the next wryly comic and astute Amsterobservations !

    • Thanks Diane – I know exactly what you mean, it’s simultaneously inspiring and demoralising to see how quickly the kids have picked it up! But they have that immersion that as an adult you have to go out looking for, unless you enrol in immersion language class which I can’t afford.
      However – I now have 2 people who REALLY REALLY kindly speak only Dutch to me (it must so boring for them, I’m SO slow) but that’s the only way to improve my spoken Dutch.
      There’s a polite you and informal you here too…. one of the funniest things is seeing U KUNT at the beginning of adverts, which is the polite form of YOU CAN…!!!!

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