I am laughing heartily with a Dutch pharmacist. She has just made a joke about the fact that I am buying two boxes of Yoni sanitary towels. These are environmentally-friendly sanitary towels that cost twice the price of regular sanitary towels, because, in case you hadn’t noticed, sustainable living is still a privilege for those with the time and money to dabble in it, hence our one-way ticket to life on the Thunderdome in approximately ten years. HAHA! HAHA!
You want to know the pharmacist’s joke? So do I. I have asked her to repeat it, which she did, and I still didn’t understand it, but here I am now laughing with her, because to have asked for a second time might have been insulting or stupid or awkward or inconvenient. So:
I consider what the quip could have possibly been:
“This is a shit load of sanitary towels! You must bleed profusely, even still at your age! HAHA!”
“These two boxes of sanitary towels cost more than I am paid an hour! HAHA!”
“I can say whatever I like to you can’t I! You have no clue what I’m saying! This is like swearing at a baby! DUMBASS! HAHA!”
In the week that follows, I menstruate in an environmentally respectful way whilst researching Dutch courses. I have a pretty solid command of the basics; I don’t need to Google Translate school emails, I can conduct a play-date. I can have a chat over a coffee in Dutch, so long as there is no background noise and my coffee partner is a well-spoken female. I have even complained to the builders next door that their early morning chain-sawing is detrimental to my son’s asthma, although of course I did not say detrimental; I said NOT NICE. That told them.
But during Dutch chat, my Dutch acquaintance, whoever he or she may be, still squints at me as I speak, as if they stand at a multi-exited junction and I am a particularly complicated map. They must endure pauses of considerable discomfort as I search my brain for the right word, remember to conjugate correctly, and hey, are all the necessary infinitives at the end? Goddammit START AGAIN!
A year ago, when a Dutch person asked me, in Dutch, how long I’d lived here, I’d say:
And they’d go:
“Wow! Your Dutch is so good for just a year!”
Now, when a Dutch person asks me, in Dutch, how long I’ve lived here for, I say:
And they go:
I book an intake interview for an intensive two week course. I want Dutch people to be impressed by me again. I am always eager to impress people and I respond very well to praise; two attributes that do not reflect well upon me as a functioning adult, but might, perhaps, get me through the fluency barrier. After that, I’ll go into therapy about the people-pleasing. In Dutch! Won’t the Dutch therapist be IMPRESSED???
On a hot September morning, I drop the kids to school. The route we follow to our Dutch school is in the same direction as a British school and an international school. At the trickiest junction en route, all three children decide to ask me a question.
The ten year old: “Who decides what things are called?”
The five year old: “When you die, Mummy, I mean when YOU die, when will you come back?”
The eight year old: “What happens if a mosquito goes into your vagina?”
As I turn to respond, a Dutch woman and her daughter speed past us. The Dutch woman says something to her daughter in Dutch, or perhaps to herself. We catch up with them at the traffic lights.
“Mummy,” says the eight year old. “That woman said that English people can’t cycle properly! THAT WOMAN THERE!”
The light turns to green, and the Dutch woman departs with haste.
Usually, when the eight year old speaks loudly about someone within earshot, I suggest to the eight year old that this is, perhaps, rude.
On this occasion, I do not.
My intake interview takes place a couple of hours later. It is unseasonably hot, because of the forthcoming Thunderdome etc, and I’m late because my bike pedal kept getting stuck en route. I am sweating profusely as I shake hands with my prospective teacher. Let’s call him Jorik. We speak Dutch, of course. Are you impressed?
“Where do come out of?” says Jorik.
“I come out of England,” I say.
We take seat in front of a large window, through which the sun beats down upon me. Take some deep breaths, I remind myself. This isn’t a test.
“This is a test,” says Jorik, “to see to which course level you are suited.”
“Good,” I say. “For that am I here.”
“We start with your morning,” he says. “Tell me all that you have done.”
“Well,” I say. “I stood myself up, I made the children ready for school. I made the breakfast. I showered. Have I already told that showered I?”
Jorik nods. Once again I’m an unreadable map. Which is SO FUNNY because actually, as you know, I am an OPEN BOOK, or should I say an OPEN BLOG!
Imagine when I can utilise such snappy word-play in Dutch.
“I brought the children to school-”
Here, Jorik interjects in English. “Use the present perfect.”
“Instead of the imperfect.”
I am a writer. I am a writer.
I open and close my mouth like a goldfish.
Jorik sighs. Poor Jorik. Alas, etc.
He returns to Dutch: “I have brought the children to school.”
I repeat it.
He continues in English: “You guys use mostly imperfect. We use mostly present perfect. You cannot rely on direct translations.”
I continue in Dutch: “But I always in my head translate.”
He replies, in Dutch: “This must you stop. Now. We continue. Pro-Brexit or Anti-Brexit?”
This is a very thorough test.
“Anti! I find it horrible!”
“I find no English person here who Pro-Brexit is.”
“Because they are all in England.” I pause. “And also the Costa Del Sol.”
I attempt here a tricky comment along the lines of I-don’t-know-what-will-happen-because-the-political-divide-is-so-great. You know, that old chestnut. But I get stuck on divide, which totally ballses up my entire sentence, because I have a shitload of verbs waiting to be used at the end of the sentence in order that any of it will make sense. I am sweating profusely.
“Scheiding? Divisie?” he suggests.
“Divisie?” I repeat, pointlessly including the question mark inflection.
“You know,” he says in English, “sometimes the words are very similar, and with a Dutch accent, it is worth a guess. Division, divisie, vagina, vagina-“
“-and you’ll more and more try to-“
“-because once you have these principles in your head-“
My brain wurrs. Am I being a prude? Am I being mildly sexually harassed? There is a door open next to us, full of students. Would mild sexual harassment take place in such circumstances? The students are making a lot of noise. Did I mishear? Did Jorik in fact say vagina, vagina? And also, what would happen if a mosquito went into your vagina? I don’t imagine that it would last long. I feel sure that vaginas are not hospitable habitats for parasites. Certainly, they ought not to be.
Also, mosquito in your vagina would be a great Dutch saying.
“Hurry up!” says Jorik, in English.
“Sorry, pardon?” I reply, which means, sorry, sorry?
“Quick fire translation round!” Jorik is having a great time. “Hurry up!”
“Ok, er, schiet op!” I say, feeling, as I always do, that I’m saying shit up.
“Ok Margaret, I’m coming!”
“Ok Margaret, ik komt eraan!”
Goddammit. I just said, “I is coming”.
“Now a romantic one, very funny, I think.”
Jorik lifts his head and sings:
“I don’t want to talk about it…. How you broke my heart.”
Ah, fuck. This is hard. As if a British person would EVER say “I don’t want to talk about it.” I find myself looking for the Dutch equivalent of “oh, how kind of you to ask! Yes, well, you know, it’s rather complicated, I’m not quite sure that I can… I mean how much would you like to know? I will just need to check my diary, to see when I can tell you all about it, because of course I would LOVE to tell you all about it, and I mean EVERY DETAIL, but sadly, SADLY, I’m under a great deal of pressure time-wise….”
I splutter something along the lines of:
“I would like kindly over that not to speak.”
Then I nail “how you broke my heart”:
How you have broken my heart.
[Into camera, Fleabag style:] Present perfect, natch.
We conclude in English. I have sweated half of my own body weight. My clothes are sticking to me. Alas, poor environmentally-friendly sanitary towel, etc.
“Well, says Jorik, “I give you my compliments; many people here longer than you are worse at Dutch.”
“Thank you!” I say, delighted.
“Actually,” he continues, “I give my compliments to the city municipality, who have given you lessons to this point.”
“Fair enough,” I say.
“But also, some compliments to you!”
“Thank you!” I say, delighted again. I am a stay-at-home parent, qualified for nothing. I heartily accept any positive feedback, whether it is unconditionally lavish, or retracted, diminished and reluctantly reissued.
I cycle home, stopping every now and then to loosen my stuck pedal, causing moments of mild inconvenience on the bike path.
You know what they say about English cyclists.