I am buying groceries in the Jumbo; the Tesco of the Netherlands. Like Tesco, the Jumbo ends in an o, sells ropey-looking romance novels in the toiletries section and likes to remind us of Earth’s impending doom by wrapping individual red peppers in plastic coffins – A METAPHOR FOR OUR BLEEDING PLANET. ASPHYXIATED AT ITS RIPEST. DEATH BY CONVENIENCE. VERY GOOD, THE JUMBO. But, unlike Tesco, the Jumbo’s talents don’t end with postmodern apocalyptic commentary.
The Jumbo is also bilingual.
Everyone who works here is bilingual. The man outside, selling a Big-Issue equivalent, is bilingual. Toddlers attacking their parents’ shins are complaining bilingually. The Christmas songs being piped through the store are English songs that have been translated into Dutch and then transformed back into BETTER ENGLISH.
My phone rings when I am at the counter. It is a Dutch number.
“With Lauren,” I say in Dutch. This is how Dutch people answer the phone when they are not doggedly persisting with perfect English.
“Hello! It is Hendrik!” English, in a Dutch accent. “We are meeting today!”
Hendrik is my new language buddy. He is a volunteer, in his seventies, and will be played by Timothy West in the inevitable Netflix series based on this blog. Unless, of course, Timothy West gets caught up in some sort of #metoo scandal. I can’t think of any other possible obstacles.
“Hendrik! How is it going?” I say in Dutch, unloading different varieties of baked goods from my basket. In three and a half years I can switch my British passport for a Dutch one, and they’ll check retrospectively that yeast has been present in at least 70 percent of my supermarket purchases.
“Good thank you!” Hendrik continues in English. “We arranged that I will come to your café again today, but I am in a pub.”
“A pub?” It is ten in the morning.
“Yes. In central Amsterdam. My friends are here and I don’t feel like leaving, so I wonder if you can come here?”
The cashier starts to bleep my baked goods through. I’m only buying one packet of stroopwafels today. She glances up suspiciously.
“It is convenient?” shouts Hendrik.
It is not convenient.
“Of course!” I say, phone wedged between my ear and my shoulder, scooping my shopping into bags. “Send me the address and I’ll be right there!”
“Do you want the receipt?” asks the cashier, in English.
“No,” I reply in Dutch, “Just the hedgehogs.”
She looks at me blankly.
“I mean the stamps,” I correct. The Dutch love collecting discount stamps and coupons. I’m saving up for a frying pan. You know, for all the pancakes.
Twenty minutes later I’m in central Amsterdam. I walk into the type of Dutch bar that is frequented exclusively by old Dutch dudes and lost tourists. There are four old men in the bar, deep in guttural conversation. In the middle is Hendrik.
“Hello!” he shouts over to me, as if the bar was full. I join them at their table. They are drinking coffee, not beer. That’s something, I think, as I take a seat.
“Hello everyone,” I say in Dutch. “Fine to meet with you.”
Hendrik’s friends stare at me as if I have two heads. Then they turn back to Hendrik. Then they turn back to me.
“We are talking,” explains Hendrik to me in English, “about how no-one in this world understands anyone else anymore.”
“Ah,” I say.
“Just…. try to keep up.”
Hendrik tells a story about how a teenage boy undercut him on a scooter in a dangerous manner in the bike lane last week. Hendrik followed the boy home and confronted him on the topic of the hazardous nature of his undercutting. The boy seemed not to care. Henrik was not surprised that the boy did not care. Hendrik then spoke to the boy’s mother. She was very surprised that her son had displayed such a neglectful attitude towards highway safety and, more generally, personal etiquette. Hendrik was not surprised that she was very surprised. Hendrik invites comment from the group, and the three other men all speak at once. I have no idea what is going on.
“Now it is time for our lesson,” says Hendrik. He looks at me. “What would you like to talk about?”
I hold up a magazine. “I bought an article.”
Hendrik looks at the article. It is a weekly column written by Femke van der Laan, the widow of the beloved Amsterdam mayor who died last year. I love reading her column. It’s honest, raw and – crucially – written in the present tense. I have underlined the words and expressions that eluded me.
Hendrik shakes his head, despairing. “She writes this,” he says in English, “as if she is the only person this has happened to. Just because she was married to the mayor who is now dead, she has this whole page every week!”
“Some people have all the luck,” I reply in English. The barman laughs.
We meet each week in the bar. I pay for Hendrik’s coffees in exchange for an hour of Dutch tuition and bleak conjecture on the forthcoming downfall of humanity. First on the list is climate change (“It’s too late – sorry if this depresses you. It is a shame because you have children”), but a close second is the English bastardisation of the Dutch language. He despairs when we read English quotes in the articles that I bring.
“I hear Dutch young people now who will say a whole English sentence in the middle of a Dutch conversation for no reason,” says Hendrik. In English.
“I might learn English,” says Ton, Hendrik’s friend, from behind a paper. Ton only speaks Dutch.
“Oh yes?” says Hendrik in Dutch, turning to Ton. “You want to learn English?”
“I don’t want to,” says Ton, putting his paper down, “but maybe I will. But I don’t want to.”
“Why not?” I ask Ton.
“Because, how do you feel, if you are in London, and you have to learn Dutch just because 100,000 people there are Dutch? And suddenly you all need to know Dutch?”
“I understand,” I say.
“Now at my age, I go into shops, here in Amsterdam, and the cashier doesn’t speak Dutch. And it is my country!”
“I think it is better if newcomers try to learn Dutch,” I say.
Ton gets his coat. He is not leaving, but he likes to stand outside for twenty minutes. Then he will come back in. Variety is the spice of life.
“I don’t want to learn English,” he confirms. “So I won’t.”
Ton goes outside for his twenty minutes.
“It is hard sometimes for people to see these changes to their country,” says Hendrik. “And their traditions.”
“Sometimes change is better,” I say, adding nervously, “like… with Zwarte Piet?”
This is brave of me, I think. Sitting in a traditional Dutch pub, questioning the racist tradition beloved by the older generations of the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is the black slave of Sinterklaas, depicted every year by people in blackface, afro wigs, accentuated red lips and gold earrings. Every year, anti-Zwarte Piet protests take place during the arrival of Sinterklaas. And every year, these protestors are pelted with eggs, beer cans and racial abuse. Amsterdam – progressive beacon of The Netherlands, perhaps of the world – has “toned down” Piets’ racial indicators by reducing the black face paint down to smudges, to more clearly represent the chimney soot that it is claimed to be. The wigs remain, as do the reddish lips. My local bakery sells these:
Hendrik is silent for a while. Did I go too far? Is this the end of the road for Hendrik and me? Am I too progressive, too outspoken, too challenging for Hendrik? I must make a note here on the script for Timothy West: a silence descends, full of rage and shame, displaced in his own lifetime. Supposedly he’s a very good actor so I think he’ll manage it.
Finally, Hendrik looks at me levelly, and says: “It is my nation’s shame.”
He glances towards Ton outside, and then turns back to the article in front of us.
Timothy West, I think, six times Lear.
I hope you have it in you.