The summer has come to an end, and the real news there is that there was a summer to end in The Netherlands; 60 consecutive days in which the temperature bobbed along above 20˚C, reaching 38 degrees on the day we drove to Zeeland to have a near death experience in the North Sea. “You just float through life, don’t you?” someone once said to me, years ago, with more than a little venom. Drowning, the experts will tell you, does not look like drowning; it’s quieter than you would expect.
The rains have returned. Here I am now, soaked to the bone in Central Amsterdam, floating through life into a small office belonging to a voluntary organisation called Gilde. I am being interviewed, in Dutch, to assess whether or not I reach the required standard to qualify for a free language buddy. If I do, I’ll be matched up with a volunteer; some poor bastard who’ll meet up with me every week to try and decipher my assault upon their language. I’ll get conversation practise, and the volunteer will get the charitable satisfaction that undoubtedly comes with helping a middle-class, white, lawyer’s wife for free.
“Back to generalities with the weather!” I say, dripping in the doorway. (Oh, sure, I’ll translate for you. I have nothing else to do but stoke the flames of your schadenfreude. You should get that looked at, by the way.)
“Thus is it the Netherlands,” says the lady at the desk, gesturing me to come in. She pulls her glasses from her nose and they dangle from a thread around her neck. She is matronly; a little frightening, a little reassuring. She reminds me of someone but I can’t think who.
“Do I take my seat place here?”
“Indeed. Take your seat place.”
I take my seat place.
“You follow a course now?” she asks.
“Yes, with much keen,” I say. “I have the chance with the municipality, but soon stops this course. I will find myself with nothing.”
This is a little melodramatic. We consider this. The phone rings, and the matronly lady answers it. Whoever is at the other end is even worse at Dutch than I am.
“How much Dutch do you know?” Pause. “Do you speak any Dutch?” Pause. “I need to know, if you speak some Dutch.” Pause. “Call back in a few months.”
The matronly lady puts the phone down and raises her eyebrows. “It is annoying for everyone of a person cannot understand anything,” she says. “It is boring for the volunteer. For everyone.”
I nod. “This is my big worry over,” I say. “That I do not reach the handle of goodness.” I reach my hand up, to convey the handle of goodness.
“It will come good,” she nods, and smiles. It feels good to have this approval from a relative stranger, and I realise that she reminds me of the community nurse who gave the nine year old his baby immunisations back in the UK, all those years ago. I cried when the baby cried, and I carried on crying long after he stopped. I told that nurse a lot of unsolicited information about my life. It is fortunate for the doppelganger before me that my vocabulary is considerably limited.
“Will you fill out this questionnaire?” She asks. “It is not compulsory. But it is a research project.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“Yes, many language academics are interested in our programme. And a company from America will visit soon, to see how our practise operates.”
“I find that good. There are a lot of foreigners in America.”
I realise that it is startlingly easy, without access to a wider vocabulary, to sound like a fascist. I start to wonder about a link between sub-standard education and the far right, until Jacob Rees-Mogg pops unpleasantly to mind. (Note for international readers: Rees-Mogg, Member of Parliament for the fortuitous folk of North East Somerset, was privately educated at Eton before finding himself – astonishingly – at Oxford University. He is a high profile fan of the popular dystopian series Brexit, and his voting record reads like a mission statement for Gilead. Oh, and he might be our next Prime Minister. OH, IT’S JUST A JOKE! LIKE IT WAS ABOUT TRUMP! Wait….)
I try to look kind and liberal as my matronly friend takes me through a list of unsettling questions: Am I self-assured? Do I have enough friends? Do I find it easy to be alone? I mark my ability to stand on my own two feet at a solid seven out of ten. I mean, here I am, conducting an interview in Dutch, or something like it. I have reached the handle of goodness and that’s no small thing, but I don’t want to over-egg it. No-one likes a show-off, especially a female one.
“Do you talk about your problems?” Matron asks.
What kind of problems? Does it have to be talking out loud? Does whatsapp count? Does talking to yourself count? Does talking to your blog followers count? “Sure,” I nod. Imagine being me, floating through life. “That can.”
“Okay,” she says, opening up a new window. “Now we start the match process. What do you find interesting in terms of hobbies?”
I stare back. “Hobbies?” Maybe she has forgotten that I have three children.
“Yes,” she says patiently. “Activities from which you procure pleasure.”
I do not know the Dutch for my main hobby, which is passive smoking, and in any case I’m not convinced that she will accept this as an appropriate answer.
“Reading,” I say. “Um, and walking.”
She types these in, and looks at me expectantly. She wants more. Don’t we all.
“Um…. music? Oh wait, I have it! FOOD!” I say, triumphantly. Another woman on the other side of the office laughs. It is the first time I’ve noticed that she is there.
“Do you prefer a man or a woman as your buddy?”
I shrug extravagantly. I am European. “It makes nothing out of it.” This is not quite true; I find it much easier to understand Dutch women than men. Audibly, I mean. Although also philosophically. Obviously. All in all, I would 100% prefer a woman.
“And you prefer a smoker or a non-smoker?”
Oh god. Give me a smoker. A sixty year old woman, fresh from a cigarette, who enunciates.
Again, I shrug. “It makes nothing of it.”
We finish my largely fictitious list of preferences and turn to the terms and conditions. Matron checks my contact details.
“Will you send me a poem?” I ask.
“No, not a poem. A face.”
She frowns. “We will not send you a photo, no.”
“Not a face.” I close my eyes, go through the files. Bingo. “A MESSAGE! You’ll send me a message?”
“Yes,” she nods, looking over a list of names. “We have lots of volunteers in your area.”
“Mostly women?” I say, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes,” she says. “Most volunteers are women. And most people who come to us for a language buddy are also women. I don’t know why.”
I have a few ideas, but luckily for whoever has the next appointment, I cannot say them.
I get the call a week later, and of course I’ve been allocated a man.
Maybe he’ll smoke.