Yesterday was Dutch Day. For me that is. Not a national phenomenon like the recent National Peanut Butter Day (January 24th, USA) or Tag des Deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) (January 11th, Germany). No. Thursday, for me, marks a day of Dutch language learning. It is as hard as it sounds.
The morning calls for an informal conversation class at the bibliotheek; a large gathering of all the misfit foreigners (myself included) who have somehow rounded up in Eindhoven, with no prior experience of the troublesome Dutch language, who chat, over a free cup of coffee and under the supervision of a native speaker, about just anything they can muster. Personal introductions always begin (which gets a little tiresome if one ends up with the same group every week), of which mine I now have engraved on my frontal lobe for use at any given moment. I am Rachel; I come from England; I am a writer. It can be elaborated on as necessary, but you get the idea. As you go round the circle you learn the forenames of all the others in the ‘Ik (I) spreek (speak) een (a) beetje (bit) nederlands (Dutch)’ clique, along with their country of origin, number of offspring and time spent in Eindhoven thus far. Sometimes the accent in which they vocalise the Dutch words is much more entertaining than their life story (often the case). But none the less, after the five to fifteen minutes of backstories the clan is ready to tackle the theme of the day’s class.
Yesterday we talked about where we lived: the centre or the outskirts; a house or an apartment. You soon learn with the Dutch that no question is a question too far. On multiple occasions during these sorts of shindigs have I divulged the extract street in which I live, the precise location along this street – in response to direct questions, mainly from the native overseer – for which my answers have always, thankfully, drawn a blank from my fellow students. Age is very much a ‘go’ area too, no matter one’s gender or frailty, along with price paid for said apartment or indeed every piece of furniture one has within it. This would actually be the prime place for a stalker or household thief to conduct his research…
We wrapped up the session with a game (eek!), involving laminated red cards with the most impossible Dutch questions that one was meant to read, decipher and, most challengingly, answer. One turned out to be: “Who do you laugh at the most?” – not who do you laugh with the most; who do you laugh AT. I was tempted to say my mother, for instance when she has a ‘Bailey’s moment’ (too much Irish cream) and falls over in slow motion, or mistakes her hairdresser’s dog for a soft cushion, but I refrained (partly to spare her dignity; mainly because I don’t yet know the Dutch for ‘tipsy’ or ‘Cockapoo’). So I settled on my favourite comedian, Russell Brand, who’s name was clearly as famous in the Netherlands as mine, and who I tried to describe be saying ‘comedian’ in a soft German accent. I have just looked in my dictionary and the correct term, in fact, is ‘blijspelspeler’… (When broken down this translates to ‘happy-performance-player’. I think I like this better than ‘comedian’.) Correction: My Dutch boyfriend just read this and said he had never heard of a blijspelspeler before. The correct term, in fact, is actually ‘cabaretier’.
The second and final unexpected (in general) and unfathomable (in Dutch, without the help of the supervisor, Anneke) questions was: “What television programme could you see yourself being in?” Well. We all drew a blank. And then I remembered Strictly. Oh, how I would love to do Strictly. (With Gorka or Aljaž, ideally.) So I let out an “Ooo!”, along with a hand raise, and proclaimed, in my very broken Dutch, that I could in fact see myself appearing in the BBC behemoth that is Strictly Come Dancing, tan and sequins and vajazzle included. I have never before received such quizzical looks.
After a spot of lunch at home (the direct location of which I will not be sharing any more frivolously than I have done already), and a much needed catch up with my favourite Great Auntie Liz (we shared stories of our respective colds and the like), I headed off to Dutch class número dos (or perhaps more appropriately nummer twee (doesn’t quite have the same ring to is, does it?)). A weekly, structured Dutch language course taught at the local Red Cross (Rode Kruis). And this is when my Dutchness really took a turn for the authentic. I was to cycle there.
But I first had to attach my new bell to my very old bike. There was a bell already in place on Lioness (I had assigned her a name, just as I have done with my cars in the past (silent weep)) but it was broken and ineffective, so I set to work on fastening the functioning one onto the handlebars. This must have been amusing for any passers-by. I had no screwdriver and so could not remove the old bell, which I did think was strangely positioned on the left-hand side. Hmm. Maybe the Dutch had a predominant left hand. (My partner, after all, does own a pair of plastic primary-school-type left-handed scissors.) But also curious was the upside down logo of the new bell, once positioned on the right handlebar. The fastening itself, done with nimble fingers, was a little comical due to the dropping of screws, etc., but nonetheless was a good job for a novice in a badly-lit alleyway. I had a quick scan of the other bikes parked there. They all had their bells on the left hand side. I realised the ding-ding dongle was indeed made to be dung in the other direction – from the left hand – which would solve the capsized logo issue and settle in better with the millions of other two-wheeled transporters around the city. Oh well. At least I had a working bing-a-ling in case of emergencies.
Having bought my oma fiets (granny bike) a good six months ago, and with a number of practice journeys met personal assistant (under the watchful eye of my able-cycler-boyfriend), I felt this was the day in which I would complete my first solo ride. We had done pretty much the same journey at the weekend, on search for a less-expensive fish monger than that located in the city centre, but however were met with a dodgy looking dealer serving unlabelled raw seafood produce from the bare hands of a twelve year old boy (but that is another story). But I knew the way, and the difficult junction(s). The first of these I had in fact had a near death experience at a few weeks ago (involving stopping in the middle of the road due to a car which I had not seen; having to walk my bike (while mounted) in reverse to the pavement where my boyfriend waited, in hysterics; and then having an awkward and embarrassing ‘no you go’ to and from with the driver of the car who wanted nothing more than to extend this excruciating experience for me by prompting me to go again and cross the ruddy street. I was too flustered to manage it so we had a stand-off for around forty-five seconds before he finally understood that I was very much an amateur and proceeded on his journey.) This was the junction I was most anxious about. But when I got to it yesterday – all alone and vulnerable – it was a dream. No traffic and no stopping required whatsoever! My lord this cycling lark was a breeze.
The afternoon class was fun as normal; an amusing group consisting of English, French, Taiwanese and South Korean origin, along with the Dutch master, of course, reading Dutch from a workbook in a rainbow of accents, and ending, most cheerfully, with a light-hearted game of hangman. (The fact that the teacher didn’t quite understand the rules just made it better.) Then it was time to fiets back home again.
Mishap number one happened very early on. I needed to turn left at the end of the street, which, like a right-turn in the UK, involves crossing a lane of traffic. I realised I had never before undertaken a turn of this type; from minor road onto more major road (but not a major road by any stretch of the imagination (don’t worry Mum)). I figured it sensible to position my bike towards the middle of the minor road, to allow for other bikes and vehicles to turn right, if needed, while I waited for the traffic from both ways to subside. Turns out this was the right thing to do. I was mightily chuffed. The car in front of me, wishing also to turn left, pulled out and it was my turn on the front line. The problem was, I hadn’t quite got my stopping routine to the fluid art I wished it to be. You see my bike’s brakes are engaged through peddling backwards; not from using brakes on the handlebars. I actually rather enjoy this situation, but the only thing is is that when I need to go again, after stopping, I require my peddles to be in a certain position. My right peddle, for example, needs to be at between five and fifty degrees (on a sideways view) for me to have enough oomph in the first push to actually get going. Due to the short distance I travelled from behind the stationary car at the junction to myself being at the junction, my feet had got in a tizz and were nowhere near the desired situation. So as a reflex I jumped off the bike. (I don’t know where this reaction has come from but it can put one in a spot of hot water.) So I was now in the middle of the road, at the line of a junction, standing next to my bike. It was all a little disconcerting. Another feature of the back-peddle brakes is that to change the position of the peddles one has to lift the rear wheel off the ground and manually, with a foot, peddle the nearest peddle forwards until they sit at the desired orientation. Doing this at a junction was both humiliating and a little dangerous, but to be able to get moving it was somewhat of a necessity.
Another cyclist glided past me while this was happening, giving me an even stranger look than I had received that morning from my fellow Dutch novices at the library on explaining my Strictly Come Dancing dreams. But at least the overtaker wasn’t one of my afternoon class colleagues. That would have been mortifying. I eventually got my pedals to where they needed to be and got on my way. Ah. Bliss.
The second and final hiccup came a little later, at about the four-fifths mark of the journey. There is a very strange road layout that requires bicyclists to cross their side of traffic and move to another cycle lane on the other side. We had talked about this junction at the weekend, during and after manoeuvring it, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. Look over your left shoulder to check for any cars; go if there’s none; judge the speed if there is one; and make a decision on if you stay or if you go. Usually cars are very forgiving of cyclists here (bikes really rule the way), but as a novice I prefer to be overly cautious. Which, I think, causes confusion to the drivers. The car approaching my left shoulder was white (think of that what you will) and seemed to be quite close, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure what it was doing so I slowed and hung back. It wasn’t sure what I was doing so it slowed and hung back. I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do. It beeped at me and I was mortified for the second (or third) time that day. I didn’t actually know if the beep meant “get out of the way and go back to where you came from” or “for goodness sake: GO!”, so I continued to slow and hang back. This, it seemed, was my new accident-aversion technique. (It certainly didn’t prevent deadly embarrassment but it did keep me safe of any cuts or bruises.) The white car overtook and I crossed the line of traffic behind it. I then had to wait at the traffic lights in parallel with the car, simultaneously cursing the driver in my head and doing everything to avoid eye contact for fear of some kind of indecent hand gesture. Finally the lights turned green and I was on the home straight. I peddled up to the shopping street and dismounted, successfully. I locked up little Lioness, clambered back up to the flat and poured myself a very large glass of congratulatory and consolatory red wine. Phew.