“Hoe gaat het?” How are you?
I sat cross-legged on the little couch in the living room with my notebook in my lap. Hylke sat across the coffee table corner from me and followed along as I read aloud, gently helping with pronunciation. Earlier I had passed my notebook around the flat in an effort to compile a study list. It had turned into a team event – everyone contributed key words and common phrases that I should probably know; now it was time to practice. I was certain that my vocal chords were physically incapable of creating the right sounds, no matter how hard my brain tried to shape the words. Tenuous and gawky, I thrashed my way through each thought and each sentence.
“Ik ben verdwaald.” I am lost.
Language skills had generally come to me readily, even when abroad. Most of my travels had been to countries rooted in Romance languages like French and Spanish – both of which I could understand and use on a functional level, however clumsy it may have been. Here in the Netherlands it was much different. I had crash-landed in Alkmaar directly after racing in Ghent, Belgium (my Flemish being equally nonexistent, for the record) and been immersed in the Dutch language for about a week or so; I tried to soak it up everywhere – at the track, on the bus, on the sidewalks and street signs, in shop windows, on store shelves. Dutch was so unlike most other languages that I had encountered before. The vocabulary only revealed itself in shards and shimmers of familiarity; it was like trying to listen to a conversation under water. Everything else left me in a mental fog, disoriented and bewildered.
“Waar ben ik?” Where am I?
My easiest yet most embarrassing communication tool had quickly become The Face. I had mastered the move within hours of being on the ground in both Belgium and the Netherlands: eyes widened and blank; jaw slackened; mouth slightly agape – culminating the universal look of vacuous confusion. To immediately pull this off would spurn the speaker to rapidly switch to English approximately ninety-eight percent of the time.
I hated it. Being unable to use the native language made me appear a dimwitted cow. It felt like a direct affront to the host country and its people while simultaneously dumbing myself down.
The brain would have an idea but the right verbal coding was missing. Words would swirl around the mind and bubble up from the lungs, only to tangle in the back of the throat or swell and snag on the tongue to leave me, the hapless Anglophone, spouting out the wrong sounds. Each time the result was withering, like orchid petals left to the sun’s blazing scrutiny; it stung – even a simple greeting required courage and understanding that I didn’t have. I was incapable of being my normal friendly and talkative self.
“De taal leren!” The Turkish cashier at the grocery store flashed me a stern glare and pointed at my brow with the flick of her wrist.
I made The Face at her and then quickly rounded to my Dutch compatriot Shanne for help.
“She said ‘learn the language,’” Shanne told me. She then proceeded to explain to the woman that I was merely training in Alkmaar for a few weeks and not here to stay. The cashier gave a sigh of resignation (and perhaps relief) as she handed me the receipt.
I hated that part especially. How could I learn something if I hadn’t had the opportunity to do so?
It’s irritating to be in one’s home country and attempt to communicate with someone who doesn’t know the language (but had the audacity to show up anyway). What one can often miss or overlook, however, is the equal exasperation of the person on the other side of the conversation – the newcomer without the vocabulary, mechanics, and practice to speak with anyone over the age of four. I was suddenly on the cold and confounding side of the fence.
“Ik versta het niet.” I don’t understand.
Now here I sat in the Dutch team house in Alkmaar – I had been graciously adopted by the Dutch riders, and my lack of language skills left me feeling more and more boorish by the day. We would all train and cook and hang out together, but I was only getting a small fraction of the whole experience. Naturally, when the riders said that they could teach me some important bits, I jumped at the chance; I wanted to learn, I needed to learn something.
“You’re crazy,” Shanne said. “Dutch is a crazy language. It makes no sense.” That was certainly not a ringing endorsement from a native speaker. So be it; I was willing to try.
I hated not having words. I hated not having answers. I hated reducing myself to blank stares and body language. I hated feeling dubious and dull.
I glanced across the table at Hylke and let out a deep breath of air. Folding my legs together a little tighter, I gripped my knees and studied the page with the hand-scrawled list.
“Gaat alles goed?” Is everything alright?
“Ja. Dank u.” Yes. Thank you.
“Graag gedaan.” You’re welcome.