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muddying the lingual waters

Maybe it was stupid going to a Dutch/German speaking country just as I was getting the hang of French. To my ear, Dutch is a combination of German and something Scandanavian. I can’t even attempt it for fear of bludgeoning their language to the point of being insulting. I’m still not sure if thank you is Dank ooo or Dank oh (spelled phonetically). And forget any sort of greeting. The words refuse to stick in my brain, let alone roll (or even drip slowly and painfully) off my tongue.

I manage the train up from Gare du Nord with a fair amount of confidence. Found my train, bought my ticket, no problem except the price which seemed more like a plane fare it was so high (about $300).

The train is surprisingly comfy. I sleep between France and Brussels (a mere 90 minutes), waking up every now and then to notice the beautiful green countryside and smile at the young man sitting next to me, reading a book in English. Brussels looks boring. Antwerp doesn’t. The minute we cross the border from Belgium to Holland the first I thing I notice is an onslaught of bike riders. It’s like a constant bike marathon on every street.

The background noise in the train is pretty much a low murmur of a couple of languages, all sounding kind of Germanic. But there was one voice that scared the hell out of me. It was female, loud and really heavy on the “chks”. She didn’t sound exactly German, in that her voice didn’t make me want to flee, but it did give my frown lines a good work out trying to figure out her accent. The young man next to me identified it as a Hague soccer mom accent, and sure enough, that’s where she got off, chomping her gum maniacally.

He spends the rest of the train ride trying to teach me how to pronounce Schipnol correctly, which is his stop. He is Dutch, has lived in Holland all his life, goes to college and works and wants to leave Holland more than anything because it’s so “flat” (said with despair in his voice). He wants to go somewhere with mountains. Of course, as he told me all this, I was thinking how cool it would be to live in Holland.

I look for a slum, but can’t find anything resembling one. I guess that must be Haarlem which isn’t on this line. I’ve since discovered that Haarlem is really nice. Who knew? There’s got to be a ghetto somewhere in this country!

Fours hours from Gare du Nord, I’m at Amsterdam Central train station (their Penn station).   It seems a manageable size. And not full of scary people as I feared. I find the machines for tram tickets.

I have directions to where I’m staying, but it makes no sense to me and doesn’t seem to correspond with the names on the ticket machines.

I know I can handle this…even though these people are all speaking Dutch (when I was last here 24 years ago, didn’t they all speak English? Is this the Bush administration’s fault?)

I go outside and ask a cab driver how much to Vosseustraadt. Well, I didn’t exactly ask anything, I just gestured wildly at the piece of paper with the street’s name on it.

The cab ride is like 20 euro and I know it’s not far enough to be worth 20 euro.,No way.

So I force myself back to the ticket machines and figure it out. The cost of a tram ticket is 1.60 Euro, way cheaper than the cab. I’m starting to feel a sense of purpose. There’s something so much more challenging about trying to accomplish something in a foreign language. And the rush when you actually communicate through the language barrier, is well worth the fear.

But I’m also feeling a sense of danger. These bikes are whizzing by everywhere. Now my purpose is to get on the 2 or 5 without getting maimed by a bicyclist. I see the number 5 across the way and get on. Oooooo, this is so exciting. I show the woman sitting next to me the address I’m going to and she nods. I have no idea where I am or where I’m going exactly and just hope somebody tells me when I get there. Meanwhile, I look at all the cool. shuttered buildings, little shops (nirvana), canals and people heading home from work. I try to remember the names of the streets we pass: somethingstraat, liederhosendenplein, wafflegrasse. Where am I going again? Vossiusstraat near hobbitgrasse or something

Just as we’re passing a very green park, the woman next to me nudges me and indicates this is my stop. I say “merci beaucoup” hoping I can fool her into thinking I’m french and get off.

I listen to the people talking in the park…a lot of harsh German sounds intermixed with northern oooos, but other languages blended in as well. At one point I’m thrilled because I understand everything this Dutch boy is saying (I must have been Dutch in a previous life). Turns out he was speaking English. Damnenstraat!.

I reach the number 29 and ring the doorbell. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m visiting my friend Al who I haven’t seen in years. What are his wife, kids and nanny like? God, I hope nobody here speaks Dutch.

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