Gambrels of the Sky

In the Clouds and Back to Earth

I started school last week, but not as a teacher. I’m currently enrolled in an intensive Dutch language course for “Absolute Beginners” at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. It is rather intensive, with sixteen hours of class time and unlimited homework every week. And I am certainly an absolute beginner. If we were to have a conversation today in Dutch, it would go like this:

You: Hey, how’s it going?
Me: My name is Abby. I come out of America.
You: Oh, that’s cool. What did you think of the last episode of Mad Men?
Me: Sandwiches are yummy, and this is my hair.
You: Yeah, but the symbolism at the end was just a little overkill, don’t you think?
Me: My name is Abby.

But quite a bit uglier. Dutch, even at its best, is not the most beautiful language.

Regardless, I’m enjoying the course. It largely entails sitting around with twenty other grown adults discussing what kinds of food a duck eats and how to get to the cafe. My classmates are mostly Middle Easterners, with a smattering of Europeans, and they are a nice bunch. The course is taught in Dutch and English, but Arabic is the default social language for my class. Despite some significant linguistic hurdles, I think we all feel a sense of comradery. In our desperation for connection, any joke made in Dutch, no matter how terrible, emits an enthusiastic chuckle. One guy accidently said he liked to drink beer for breakfast (instead of dinner). The crowd went wild, and he is now lovingly referred to as “Beer.”

I imagine school is stressful to some returning students, but I find it quite restful to sit on the other side of the desk after years of being in front of the class. Well, restful until today, that is, when the teacher announced each student’s grade as he handed back our first exams. I think a teacher who did this nowadays in the U.S. might seriously be sued, but I’ll just chalk this one up to a cultural difference as nobody else seemed phased.

At any rate, I’ve gone from August, when I had days and days of glorious free time, to September with its deadlines and homework. I don’t mind, though. As much as I love to wander, I also like to walk purposefully with my thermos of tea and, lately, umbrella in hand each morning.

Last week, during a precious rain-free and class-free afternoon, my friend, Charan, invited me to an art exhibit by Taturo Atzu that was basically scaffolding and a platform built on the roof of the Oude Kerk (the Old Church) in the center of the city. Even with just my phone, I was able to snap a few nice pictures. The light was just right, hovering between sun and shade, and the city was full of cloud shadows.

Afterward, we went inside the church, the oldest parts of which date to 1306. It’s a huge, airy, somewhat disjointed space with incredible acoustics. I was most struck by the floor, which is made of 2500 tomb covers lying side by side. Apparently, it was quite lucrative to sell these indoor grave spaces back in the day. People were buried four deep and periodically exhumed to make more room. As you can see in the pictures, most of the tombs were simply numbered for reference, but rich people engraved their stones more elaborately. Here lies Pieter Clockener, wealthy farmer, nickname: Chicken.

Between the roof and the floor, we spent several hours marveling at the old church. By the time we came out, it was raining again, so I went home and started my homework.