Who, me? What am I doing? I’m just working on a script. What’s that? What script, you ask? It’s the pilot episode of a little series about expats that my creative partner and I are co-creating. You might have seen some of our test filming on my Instagram Stories, perhaps? No? No, you didn’t see that? You haven’t been looking at my Instagram Stories? It was nothing really, just a day of filming, with actors, and a cameraman, and a director (MY CREATIVE PARTNER!) and a writer (ME!). I mean, I don’t even know how it ended up on my Instagram Stories because it was just a little test shoot. And I, like everyone else, can’t stand Instagram Stories! I don’t even watch them, apart from when they just start playing on my phone at the same time that my eyes are facing my phone! I don’t even really know how Instagram Stories work! I must have fallen asleep on my phone; perhaps my twitching nose, teeming with the new season’s allergens, accidentally sneezed the precisely-timed 15 second videos of the test shoot that I took for no reason directly to my Instagram Stories. Of course I’m not the kind of attention-starved person who does Instagram Stories on purpose! Now, where was I? Oh, that’s right – I was telling you, in my blog about myself, about the television series that I am writing, loosely based on myself.
I am spending, on account of all this writing, an unhealthy amount of time alone. I’m not worried about the effect this will have on my personality – I’m almost forty, that ship has sailed – but it does mean that my Dutch is taking a nose-dive, albeit from an non-fatal height. I have discovered that there is a weekly language workshop on at the local community centre. I don’t want to go. I should be able to speak fluent Dutch by now. In July, we will have lived here for two years. My last Dutch teacher said that adults take two years to become fluent. I should have organized more Dutch coffee mornings. I should have been watching Dutch television. I should have listened to more Dutch podcasts. I don’t want to go because, surely by now, I shouldn’t need to go. But I do need to go, and the workshop is free, and it is next door to school, so I can pick up the kids straight after.
I don’t want to go. I close my MacBook Pro.
I don’t want to go. I pack my Chrome rucksack.
I don’t want to go. I put on my new Zara trench.
I walk into the community centre and the smell of cigarettes hits me; not in a rousing, Malboro Gold and an espresso in the sunshine kind of way, but more a stale, Lambert & Butler, pre-smoking-ban pub carpet kind of way. I see someone I know sitting on the stairs; an American dad from school. He tells me he volunteers in the Community Lunch kitchen here twice a week. Local shops donate leftover food, and whatever doesn’t go into the Community Lunch is bagged up for local residents to take home with them.
“I’m here for a free language class,” I say.
“Is that right?” he says. “I didn’t know one was offered here.” He goes on to tell me about a reading group that he went to at the library once a week, where they’d take turns reading an article, and afterwards they would discuss it. He points me towards the reception area, and then goes off to Do Some Good.
“Good morning,” I say in Dutch to a tired chap at reception, who is looking at me somewhat skeptically. “I am here for the Language Workshop.”
“Did you tell the teacher you are coming?” he replies in Dutch. It is hard to hear him; behind us, there’s a room full of Amsterdammers participating in the Walk-In Coffee Morning, which will shortly morph into the Community Lunch, served by my friend. No-one looks like they are preparing to make a move this side of lunch.
“I did not tell the teacher,” I say regretfully. “I knew not of this need.”
“The intention is that you phone her so she knows how many pupils here will be.”
“I knew not of this intention.”
“Take a sit place. Perhaps she comes.”
I take a sit place and hope that the teacher perhaps doesn’t come. The smell of cooked food infiltrates the stale smoke, the result being that I feel unjustly hungover and a bit hungry. I realise I haven’t had lunch, but I’m getting the feeling, as I sit in my sit place in my Zara trench and Oliver Bonas shawl, that I am not the target audience for the Community Lunch.
An authoritative-looking woman walks in. I hope that she isn’t the teacher. She claps her hands at the room, and a few people, but not many, stop talking. Authoritative Woman welcomes everyone, explaining that volunteers will shortly serve lunch. She hopes that everyone will like it. This counts, I think to myself as I listen. This is practise. It is ten minutes after the start time of the language class. Another authoritative-looking woman walks in with a thin teenage boy in a beanie. Authoritative Woman 2 speaks to the man at the desk, and he points at me. She beckons me to follow, and turns, shepherding the teenage boy in front of her. Chesty laughter emanates from the Community Lunch as food is served. My tummy rumbles. I follow Authoritative Woman 2 and the teenage boy.
We sit in a small office. Authoritative Woman 2 sits on one side of the desk, and I sit on the other side, next to the other pupil, who I now see, close up, is not a teenage boy, but actually a young woman, perhaps mid twenties. She keeps her beanie on. I keep my Oliver Bonas shawl on.
Authoritative Woman 2 introduces herself as Nora.
“French!” says Nora in English, pointing at the woman next to me. “She has no English, and no Dutch, so we will see what we can do. Do you speak French?”
“Not really,” I reply in Dutch. “The Dutch has pushed out the French.”
“Yes, that happens!” Nora replies again in English. My heart sinks; she is going to keep talking English. Nora reaches into her bag and brings out a children’s book called Mijn Eerste Leesboek – My First Reading Book. She opens it to the first page.
“We will practise these Dutch sounds: OE, UI, OU, EI, IJ.”
I think: It is going to be a long two hours.
French Lady begins to read an alphabetical list of OE words: boef, boeg, boek, boer, broer.
“I have a video you might like!” says Nora. She searches on her phone for a while. I glance over at French Lady, who is hesitating with her finger on doek.
“Boek,” she reads, glancing up at Nora, who is still scrolling on her phone.
“Très bien,” nods Nora. “Ah, here it is. Maybe you will like this video, it is especially for English people.”
“Thank you,” I persevere in Dutch. “I can now well good in Dutch read, but talking still comes tricky.”
“Is your partner Dutch?” English.
“No, but my children sit in a Dutch school.” Dutch.
The video explains how to pronounce each letter of the alphabet in Dutch. Nora watches me watching her phone. French Lady continues to read from My First Reading Book. Nora corrects French Lady’s pronunciation. French Lady copies her each time. I wait with baited breath for y, because I often forget y. Many people, I have noticed, have a problem remembering y.
“Griekse-y!” says Nora’s phone.
I frown. “I thought it was something other.” Dutch.
“It is also Y-grec,” says Nora. English. She glances between us, her two students. French Lady is fiddling with the cuffs of her hoodie as she forges on with OE words.
“I don’t know how to do this,” sighs Nora, gesturing at each of us in turn. “You are completely different levels. This is only her second lesson,” she adds, pointing at French Lady.
“I have heard,” I say in Dutch,” about a library reading group, in which you read an article and discuss it.”
“This would be very good for you,” she says, her relief palpable. She speaks, now, in Dutch. We have a brief Dutch conversation about the ways in which the English language is ruining both her city and my chances of becoming fluent. She asks me some questions, giving me a good run around in the Dutch pastures as I gather my things. French Lady’s fingers have stopped moving down the list of OE words, and she waits without expression. I bid everyone a jolly farewell.
I guess I’ll just pay for some more lessons, I think, as I do up my Zara trench. I walk back through the Community Lunch, and head home for something to eat, and to continue the screenplay about myself.