Half term is over, and I am preparing to call Hendrik, my elderly Dutch language partner. I have been practising my Dutch with Hendrik once a week for nearly a year now. I would tell you more about him, but he doesn’t know that I write a blog, and I worry that to tell you the best bits of Hendrik would be to advantage of him. It is a shame, because he has had rather a remarkable life, and he says many funny and objectionable things. But there you have it; one of the many issues one faces as an ethically and morally responsible blogger. You’re left with only a couple of people to routinely dissect; yourself and your lawyer. Don’t worry, they’re both used to it.
Bad Dutch: “Hello! Is Lauren! I call to ask if we our appointments again to begin!”
Perfect English: “I hear that your Dutch has not improved.”
Bad Anxious Dutch: “I have all week in English! Exchanging is tricky in my head!”
Perfect Dutch: “Okay, well I will see you tomorrow in the normal place.”
Bad Anxious Dutch: Okay! Until then! Until next seen! Until tomorrow!”
Perfect English: “Okay then, yes yes. See you tomorrow.”
I put the phone down. My palms are sweating, my cheeks are flushing. I slope miserably to the sofa.
“What’s wrong?” says My Lawyer.
“Hendrik told me that my Dutch was still bad,” I say.
“What! That’s bullshit! I heard you!”
“But you can’t speak Dutch,” I say.
“That’s true,” he says. “But it sounded like Dutch. You’re trying your best.”
“Thank you,” I say.
But My Lawyer is wrong; I am not trying my best. I could get up an hour earlier each day and read. I could watch Dutch television every night. I could go to see Dutch films, I could volunteer at school, I could volunteer at a homeless charity, I could ask Dutch mums for a Dutch coffee or a Dutch drink. I could join a Dutch club; some sort of sporting club, because also I don’t do any exercise and I drink too much coffee and alcohol and I go to bed too late every night; falling asleep mid-sentence at some point two-thirds-to-three-quarters of the way through The Golden Notebook which I am reading because I am supposed to be a writer and a feminist but HOLY CHRIST THAT BOOK NEVER FUCKING ENDS.
“Bye, then,” says My Lawyer, picking up his suitcase. He is going to Thailand for work. He will return in one week for the traditional Who-Is-More-Tired debriefing, which we will conclude by each offering the crown to the other, whilst secretly knowing the reverse to be true. Humanity thrives in routine.
The next day, Hendrik is waiting for me at our usual table in our usual place. He has a serious look on his face. He says, in perfect English:
“I must be strict with you now. It is time that you were fluent in Dutch.”
I knew that this was coming, and I have prepared a short Dutch monologue in response:
“Say you this due to our yesterday phone conversation?”
(I told you it was short.)
“Yes,” he says, and then continues in Dutch, but I cannot hear him, because the early morning drinkers on the next table are talking loudly, and I cannot even hear English well with a lot of background noise, let alone Dutch.
“Pardon?” I say.
Hendrik laughs; he is laughing because this proves his point, and I begin to panic, which further interferes with my comprehension. He repeats his sentence, and I still cannot hear him, and I suggest that we sit at a different table.
We relocate, and he continues his summary of my lack of progress. He suggests that, after two years, I should be living my life in Dutch. I try to explain how hard it is when our home life is conducted in English.
Hendrik shrugs. “Then you should speak Dutch at home with your children. They can help you.”
I take a deep breath. Here is what I WANT to say to Hendrik:
“Actually, the correct advice is to stick with the mother tongue at home. I know this because I have read a shitload about raising bilingual kids, particularly during my first year here when I thought that perhaps I had broken my kids by dragging them to a new country, away from family, away from friends, when the five year old developed a hard-blinking tic that still surfaces when he is overwhelmed, when the ten year old told me that Dutch kids in the playground called him a fucking idiot, when the eight year old cried herself to sleep almost every night for the first two months. You don’t know what it is like, Hendrik; you, with no children, do not know what it is like to have the worries of each child fill your mind three times over, and furthermore the worries that they do not know they should have; the bumps that appear on their necks, the meaningful – or meaningless – looks from teachers at the end of the day, the Christmas lists, the unethical shops, the plastic seas, their futures that could, according to The Experts, contain untold suffering, although probably not because they are well-off white people in the West, but then again probably so, because what is more inevitable than suffering? Right now, Hendrik, I know exactly what is in my fridge; what needs restocking in the next 12 hours, what I will cook for dinner, but I am not sure whether the lumps on my boobs are pre-period lumps or scary lumps, and this is something I wonder to myself every fourth week. I am due a smear test, but how does one arrange a Dutch Smear Test? (A rite of passage on an Amsterdam Hen Do; “Did you get a Dutch Smear Test, Debs?” “DID I EVER, JANICE! STILL FINDING WEED IN MY SMALLS! DON’T TELL DEAN!”) I am not sure that I have the right money for the ten year old’s guitar lesson later on – oh god, he didn’t practise this weekend, and has he done his homework? – and the right money for the cleaner, who is a replacement for our normal cleaner and not very good, but I don’t want to change cleaners because the original cleaner, who arranged for the replacement cleaner, might be hurt. Talking of hurt, I hurt my son’s feelings this morning because I reminded him to eat his tomatoes in his packed lunch. “Am I fat?” he replied, and whilst I reassured him that no, he wasn’t fat, I did not have time to explain that he should eat his tomatoes because they are anti-carcinogenic, and my father died of cancer, and we should therefore do everything we can to postpone the inevitable cancers for as long as we possibly can. Perhaps, though, he is sitting at school right now, still wondering if he is fat. Any one of my children could be, at this very moment, SAD, and deficient in vitamin D, and far behind their British peers in Maths, blinking hard. You do not know, Hendrik, that I would like to be a writer, and that I do not know whether or not I will ever write anything more than this; essentially, a long list of complaints about my perfectly reasonable, excruciating existence.”
Here is what I ACTUALLY say to Henrik: “I have Dutch TV watched sometimes. I try more to read the paper. I can all the emails from school read.”
“Really?” he asks, surprised.
“You find it ok with me to continue?”
“I do, I find you nice, a nice person,” he says. “But there must be PROGRESS.”
On the cycle ride back through Vondelpark, hearing a plethora of languages, not one of them Dutch, I think about what Hendrik has said, and can no longer recall the Dutch word for progress. Hendrik is right, I think. This is fucking ridiculous. All my children now think and dream in Dutch. That can’t be ok, can it? For my own children to dream in a different language?
When I get home, I put on a Dutch podcast called Echt Gebeurd, which means Really Happened. These are true stories told by the people who have experienced them. I’ll listen to one of these a day, I think. No, two a day! Once when I’m sorting the laundry, and once when I’m unloading the dishwasher! The introduction starts, and I turn up the volume so that I can hear it over the clinking plates, clattering saucepans, banging drawers:
Welcome to Really Happened! The true stories told by the people who themselves with the things have done! Today, we have something really special! A story that our own Paulien Cornelisse has done! In 2010, in Storyslam in San Francisco! The story is in English, because it can only in English be told!”
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE.
I go to switch it to a Dutch story, but then I hear Paulien’s voice, and recognition wraps around me like a warm blanket. Yes, of course, it’s the language. A person can fluently learn a language in adulthood, far beyond my pitiful Dutch efforts; but even then, your past is scripted with your mother tongue. You cannot escape yourself, and that is what is I connect with, as I listen to Paulien telling this story in English, her second language, in front of a live audience. She speaks quickly, breathlessly, earnestly, urgently; as if she is telling the story from a tightrope, not daring to take a deep breath in case it knocks her off.
This is what I recognise: the precariousness, the fear, the vulnerability under the spotlight. It is the language of anxiety, and for the length of the story, I am not alone.
Paulien’s story can be heard here. It is just ten minutes long and very funny, but also describes wonderfully the pitfalls of second languages. If I am ever anywhere near as good at Dutch as Paulien is at English, I will consider myself accomplished. So long as, of course, Hendrik agrees.