What do you do if you have been sent to live in the Netherlands as a trailing husband for six months, while your wife works in a high powered job? Visiting columnist Joe Weeg has been exploring his neighbourhood. Part 2: Miffy
Henriette Priester is helping me learn Dutch during my stay in the Netherlands. Not such a big deal, one would think. I figured that with the right motivation and a little time I could learn just about any language. French in a weekend? C’est moi, mon cher. German before noon? Hah! Before you can say Ich bin ein Berliner. Learn Dutch over a couple of months? Please. I go Dutch all the time.
Henriette is the wife of a husband/wife team that runs the gym, Absolutely Fit, in The Hague. She is a mother to many of us in the gym, she has her own adult children, and now has three grandchildren.
Henriette knows how to teach. She began my informal Dutch lessons by only speaking Dutch to me.
‘Hoe gaat het?’ Henriette says very slowly with a lot of hand gestures.
Cleverly, and after much thought, I respond:
‘What?’ — which I say way too loudly because I’m an American.
Sure, I have had my struggles. Last week, when I was in the checkout line at Albert Heijn, the Dutch Hy Vee, there were about 30 Dutch folks behind me, harried and rushing to get home for dinner. A check-out clerk about three cash registers over began yelling at me. At least I thought she was yelling at me because she and everyone else waiting in line were looking directly at me while she was talking.
I couldn’t understand a word.
So, I defaulted to smiling. Very broadly.
Several people immediately backed away.
But one kind Dutch woman leaned over and said in English: ‘She is wondering if you would like to go over to her line and check out.’
Hah! I hurried over to her line and began to unload my groceries.
The check-out woman nodded at me and said something more in Dutch. Nope, zero understanding. She tried again. Not helpful. Mercifully, she indicated where my debit card should go. I put my tram card in the slot. Oops. Okay, here’s the debit card. She then ended with a final flurry of words.
Is she speaking Swahili?
Thirty tired shoppers watched this transaction with fascination. As did I, because I was apparently having an out-of-body experience somewhere in Australia.
Finally, red-faced and embarrassed, I quickly packed up my groceries and raced for the exit.
‘Meneer, meneer,’ the cashier said loudly, and pointed to my toilet paper left at the cash register. Everyone looked at the toilet paper and then at me.
Whose toilet paper is that? I wondered aloud.
Not one of my best moments.
I grabbed my toilet paper and fled the store.
As you can see, Dutch lessons were going quite well when Henriette introduced me to books that have been used for over sixty years to teach Dutch kids to read — Dick Bruna’s Nijntje which I promptly translated incorrectly as Fluffy. Fluffy goes to the sea. Fluffy flies. Fluffy goes on a walk.These books are not only great for Dutch lessons, but are made out of such heavy paper that you can gnaw on the edges if you’re still teething or, as I discovered, if you are slightly anxious.
‘I used the Nijntje books for my children and the children of my children,’ Henriette says.
If children learn Dutch from these books, why can’t I?
So Henriette sent me home with half a dozen Nijntje books. And I tried to read them.
Mmm . . . harder than they look. I turn the page. Yup, there’s Nijntje doing something. Is that Nijntje on a boat or is she bathing? Okay, I think Nijntje is going on a walk. With a large cheese? Lord help me, for a rabbit without a nose Nijntje seems to have quite the vocabulary.
And it only gets worse.
I pick up book after book after book. A total disaster. I can’t translate one word.
I hate Nijntje.
And then I read about the new art sculpture back home in Des Moines, Iowa. The Miffy Fountain. A wonderful sculpture by Tom Sachs that is located in Des Moines Western Gateway Park. The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundations wrote about the Miffy Fountain with understandable pride:
‘Miffy is a character recognized globally as a symbol of childhood. . . The American artist Tom Sachs uses the image of the little bunny to comment on the commercialization of every human experience, no matter how innocent or traumatic, to sell these products.’
The little bunny? Oh my lord, Miffy is Nijntje, which I incorrectly translated as Fluffy. Tom Sachs made a sculpture from Dick Bruna’s Nijntje. My worst nightmare — Nijntje has come to Des Moines. I can never return home!
So I asked my son, Emmett, to scout out the new Miffy Fountain for me in Des Moines.
‘Dad, I can’t see a thing. She’s coated in plastic. I think for the winter.’
Hah, I knew it. Miffy is trying to go undercover. Why? Well that’s a no-brainer. She can’t speak English. She’s Dutch. I’d like to see how she fares at Hy Vee.
Don’t worry, folks, I have a solution for all of us.
And it’s not learning a new language. Too hard. Instead, we just need Dutch letters. No, not letters in Dutch, but ‘Dutch letters’ — made of chocolate. The next time you walk past the Miffy Fountain, or, for that matter, walk past me, offer us a Dutch letter.
Duh. Chocolate is the world’s language. Natuurlijk.
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