2010 Archives


Misty Monday musings

It is a dreary Monday May afternoon. According to the calendar and wisdom of years past it’s spring, but having just been out for lunch on a  wet and blustery day  I can assure you that despite what the calendar decrees that it does not feel like spring.  Even after warming my frozen digits around a steaming cup of tea there is still a discernable chill in my fingers as they skip clumsily across the keyboard.

It may be my ‘day off’ whimsy or perhaps I’m finally acclimatizing, but I find that I’m beginning to be able to appreciate this weather. For the last 6 months the cold, grey and rainy theme that seems to dominate the Dutch weather forecast has not ceased to continually damper my usually sunny disposition.

I peer out of my window and watch the rain dripping down chimney tops, pooling on balconettes and splashing off roof tiles. Fat droplets dribble down window panes and fall softly over the sea of rooftops that gradually increase in height as my gaze drifts towards the city skyline. A blanket of fog has wrapped itself around the city which is now silhouetted it in soft grey tones. And although it would be easy to dismiss this picture as cold, grey and depressing I am beginning to see something romantic and almost inspiring in the soggy concrete landscape beyond my window. I am learning to enjoy these solitary afternoons in my cozy attic, pondering life over a steaming beverage, with soft music gently dampening the pitter patter of the rain outside. I watch a tabby cat who has the perfect urban camouflage against the mottled grey’s and browns of the rooftops scuttle out of a window.

And although I can’t see them, after months of practice I can easily conjure an image of the sea of umbrellas on the streets below. People bracing against the weather; hurrying, heads down, shoulders hunched, hands safe and warm in dry pockets and feet cold in wet shoes. Clouds hang centimeters above peoples heads as they hurry on to where ever it is that they are going, warm and dry and indoors. It’s not as if this weary weather doesn’t sometimes still manage to induce a melancholic mood in me but I think I am gradually learning to look at a grey world through rose coloured glasses.

Feces fascination

The Dutch talk a lot of shit. One of the many things that fascinated me about Holland when I first arrived here was the fact that most toilets here have a sort of viewing platform, instead of your business disappearing straight into the u bend it’s on show for you to inspect. And as my Dutch gets better I’m noticing that the Dutch talk about poo a lot, even in the staffroom it’s a common topic of conversation. People here are never afraid to announce that they are off to deliver a message (boodschap) in the porcelain postal service regardless of the social setting. At first I thought it was just the people I hang out with (odd company I keep) but it’s not, it’s a national pastime, a feces fascination! So what I want to know is did talking shit inspire the poo platform or was it the other way round?

Lost in translation

The first Dutch word I learned was ‘lieverheersbeestje’ ‘lady-beatle’ (you’d be surprised how often I have actually used that word) Learning my first word was easy…. it was all the other words that came after the first one, and then stringing them in to sentences that was tricky. When you first start learning a language it’s fun, entertaining and often a good laugh and sometimes learning a language is incredibly tiring and frustrating. It’s one thing to learn a language for fun, to learn a few sentences while your on holiday or once a week in a course but when learning a language out of need, because you have to, because you need it everyday, because if you don’t learn it the words around you remain nothing other than noise, then it starts to become a chore…sometimes. It’s easy to make silly mistakes and end up saying the total opposite of what you intended to say, this is one of the best and worst parts about learning a language. Then there is the dangerous trap of literally translating things (almost always a bad idea). If your going to live in another language you have to be able to laugh at yourself and relish the English mistakes of others (linguistic karma!). I have learned to swallow my pride and just be able to laugh at these ‘lost in translation moments’, here are some of my better ones.

Prostitute found dead in a corner!

I was working in a cafe when I first arrived in Holland, my Dutch was VERY limited. I understood things by picking the few words I did understand out of a sentence and filling the in the blanks myself… (one of the upsides of learning a language, with a little imagination even the most mundane conversations can become extreemly entertaining!)I overheard a conversation and I heard the word hooker, kitchen wall, dead. fill in the blanks. Prostitute found dead in the kitchen! … EXCITING! I of course wanted to know all of the details and was somewhat disappointed to discover that the real conversation was that a mouse was found dead in the kitchen corner… much less dramatic. I’ve always relied on my over active imagination to make life more interesting but here the language barrier does it for me!

You eat Mice?

In Australia when baby is born champagne is opened and cigars are smoked, why? No idea. It’s just one of those odd traditions. In holland when  baby is born they eat ‘bischuit met muisjes” when I heard this I literally translated it and got “biscuits with mice” (yes, as in the plural of mouse). What kind of weird country have I landed myself in that they eat mice? I guess mice are one of the most common animals in Holland, but if you follow that logic the Dutch would have to celebrate birthdays with a pigeon cake. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head of a fluffy mouse, tail and all lying dead on a biscuit. YUK! And why, if your were going to eat a mouse would you put it on a biscuit? Couldn’t you at least cook it or something? BBQ maybe? Roasted? Mice pie? (mince mice hahaha) And, while we’re on it why would you celebrate the birth of a baby by eating a mouse? Why not something highly alcoholic or sugary and sweet with lots of pink or blue colouring? Well turns out my literal translation was a little off… It’s actually a biscuit with butter and Aniseed flavoured candy balls in the colour corresponding to baby’s gender. Granted, also a little out there, but definitely better than mouse cookies. And probably a lot tastier…

Horny is not your colour.

I have developed a fear of the word “yellow” in Dutch; “geel”. You’re probably wondering what kind of trauma one must endure to develop this irrational phobia. Well, allow me to enlighten you. Two words in Dutch geel and geil. Obviously there are discerable differences when you see them in black and white. Problem is once they enter the world of the spoken word the differences become much less apparent. I am going to take this opportunity to voice my opposition to Dutch vowels, they are EVIL!  In English we have nice single vowels a,e,i, o and u easy peasy. In dutch they have double vowels ae, ou, ui, ei, ie, ee, aa, oe, uu, au,

Kara “Heating” Fraser

My Dutch is pretty good these days, I have few moments where I don’t understand what someone is saying to me… but it still happens occasionally!

My heating was busted, which as you can imagine is most unpleasant especially in the evenings and it makes getting out of bed at 6.30 for work so much harder than it already is. One pleasant thing about the autumn and winter months is coming out of the cold into a lovely cosy warm house, so I resent the fact that my heating system is denying me of this simple pleasure. The ‘fix-it man’ came earlier this week to ‘fix-it’ but unfortunately he was unable to live up to his job title, leaving me shivering on my couch in my winter jacket and sleeping bag.  The ‘cant-fix-it man’ said he would arrange for someone else to come, but I received no phone call. Then at 8.30am (on my day off of course) the doorbell goes, so I pulled on my slippers and 2 jumpers and headed begrudgingly down the stairs (this better be someone coming to tell me that I have won the lottery…) I opened the door to a very large grumpy looking man with an incredible moustache that seemed to dance when he spoke. His eyebrows were a mirror image of his moustache, just longer and positioned slightly higher on his face. He had a deep bark of a voice and spoke without pleasantries (for example; good morning, how are you?) it was obvious that Dutch was not his first language but what was less obvious is whether he was speaking Dutch at all…. and the misunderstanding seemed to be mutual. Here is the conversation (and I use the term loosely, exchange of words might be a better name for it) that followed.

(Just for fun I have decided to call him Cecil, he looked like a Cecil.)

Cecil: Ik kom voor ketel.

I come to see heating.

Me: Sorry Meneer Ketel woont hier niet.

Sorry sir but Heating doesn’t live here.

Cecil: Ketel?

Heating?

Me: Nee, ik heet Kara. Fraser. (pointing at myself)

No, My name is Kara. Fraser.

Cecil: 73A? Ketel?

73A? Heating?

Me: 73A ja, maar ik ben geen Ketel, en de buren ook niet…

Yes, this is 73 A but my name is not Heating, and noone of that name lives in this building.

Cecil: (starting to look annoyed, his eyebrows and moustcahe dancing frantically around his giant features) Ketel. Fixen.

Heating. Fix.   (Fix, now there’s a word I understand! Now we are getting somewhere)

Me: Meneer, u komt iets fixen?

Sir, you’re here to fix something?

Cecil: Ja! (eyebrows jumping joyously around his forhead) Ketel!

Yes! Heating! (please Cecil, please, enough with the ‘ketel’, I think it’s fairly obvious that I have NO IDEA what that word means…)

Me: (the penny finally dropping) Oh! Meneer komt u de verwarming repareren?

Sir, are you here to fix the heating?

Cecil: Nee. Ketel.

No. Heating.

Me: Oh…

Cecil: looking exasperated, shows me a form with my name and address on it and the words ‘ketel doet het niet’  ‘heating not working’. Looks at me enquiringly…

Me: Oh! Meneer u komt de VERWAARMING fixen?

Oh! Sir you’re here to fix the HEATING?

Cecil: Nee. Verwarming!

No. Heating.

Me: (miming being cold) VERWAARMING? Ketel?

Cecil: JA! (also miming being cold) KETEL! (Cecil has a laugh like a steel drum orchestra… complete with hairy back up dancers)

Joy of joys, we have communication!

Cecil and his dancing facial hair followed me up the stairs. Before he arrived I was making coffee, I offered him a cup. He declined. I continued making my coffee. One minute later I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned around to see Cecil peering out at me inquisitively from under his eyebrow (singular). He pointed at my coffee and said “Ik ook?  Me too?” Oh Cecil!

Cecil then went about his work and in no time he was done. As he left he said something that was either “it’s fixed but don’t turn the heating off” or “it’s fixed but you CAN’T turn the heating off.”  I’m still not sure which. As he left he mimed a mobile phone. I nodded. Cecil looked satisfied. I had no idea whether he meant that he would call me, the landlord or if I was meant to call Cecil, or the landlord. No idea… but at least my heating’s working! Thanks Cecil!

Happy unbirthday!

Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, and in Holland Happy Birthday to my Mum (on my birthday) Happy Birthday to my Dad (on my birthday) Happy Birthday to my sister (on my birthday) actually Happy Birthday to everyone that knows me… on MY birthday! Yup it’s an odd Dutch thing which, while I find it a little odd it’s kind of nice. The basic rule as is follows: when it’s your birthday people congratulate all those near and dear to you. Sound confusing? let me give you an example. It’s your sister’s birthday, you’re going out to a casual dinner at her favourite sushi restaurant with a few family and friends. As everyone arrives they of course make a big fuss over the birthday girl, hugs and kisses follow, the birthday girl is serenaded with badly sung renditions of happy birthday and a series of gifts in shiny paper are exchanged. In Holland the birthday congratulations does not stop there, as a significant other of the birthday-ee you would also be congratulated with kisses, hugs etc (the only difference is you don’t get shiny presents or serenades). The problem is how far does the congratulation circle stretch? Do you congratulate only immediate family and perhaps the significant other? or do you congratulate good friends? But, how do you qualify a good friend? What about work colleagues? Extended family? Neighbours? The end result is that everybody ends up congratulating everybody else. Entering a Dutch birthday celebration means doing the celebration round, and of course being congratulated in return (I’m still getting used to being congratulated because it’s my friends boyfriends birthday…). This congratulatory round takes quite some time and energy and overworking of the pucker-muscles due to the fact that in Holland the done thing is 3 kisses, yes. 3 kisses. Holland is too cool for the standard European 2 kisses. Yup, the Dutchies just haaaaaad (insert whiny sarcastic tone here) to be different!

I’m doing my best to Dutchify myself, you know absorb the culture and all that. So, on my birthday when Hugo wished me happy birthday I replied “congratulations on my birthday” … apparently thats taking it too far! Other people can congratulate everyone around me because it’s my birthday but I can’t congratulate people on my birthday? Made sense to me…. Culture switching, tricky stuff.

“Happy unbirthday to you and you and YOU!” …it’s all very Alice in Wonderland.

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