Gambrels of the Sky

Observational Paraphernalia

We’ve been in the Netherlands now for about two and a half months, and, while things are far from settled, some of the practicalities of life are finally falling into place. This move has apparently brought out some of my latent superstitious tendencies, though, so I’ll hold off on details until we’ve signed more official documents and received enough bureaucratic reassurances that I can stop knocking on wood.

In the meantime, I present a small collection of photos and some remarks.

Consider the text found in the poster above: “Zwam Beer Ferment Oog Aroma Culture”

What follows is my inner monologue:

Zwam Beer, Zwam Beer, yeah it must be a sign about beer. Yes, definitely, because the next word is Ferment. Maybe a swim beer? Like a beer you drink while swimming? Why would they have a sign about that? Wait. Beer… isn’t that spelled B-I-E-R? But then what’s a beer? It’s a bear! Duh, you idiot, beer means bear, and bier means beer. A swimming bear! But. Hold on. Doesn’t to swim translate as zwemmen, with an e?. Not zwammen. Aw, hell. Is Zwam even a verb here? So something about a bear? A zwam bear? A fermented zwam bear? Huh. Time to regroup. Maybe the rest is easier. Aroma Culture, at least that’s clear. Kind of. Can aroma really be a culture? And Oog? Is that some kind of insult? Ugly, oogly, oog? No, wait, oog means eye! Um, Eye Aroma Culture? Is this a poem?

And so on. Actually, I’m still not sure what this particular sign means. To the best of my ability, using all available tools, I have translated it as, “Fungus Bear Ferment Eye Aroma Culture.”

So, yes, I think it’s some kind of language play. Maybe it’s an advertisement for an experimental art/language exhibit? Perhaps at some place called Dijkspark 6? You’ll have to ask a Dutch person.

Such is my literacy level these days. Everything is a puzzle while learning a language that seems somewhat close to English but is still incomprehensible to English speakers. I think the Germans have an easier time of it.

Recently, I brought home a book called Oosterse Wijsheden, or Oriental Wisdom. Sure, it’s of dubious credibility, but I like it because each page contains lots of white space. Every day, Dave and I try to decipher one or two tidbits from Gandhi or “Boeddha.” Today, for example, we learned to “Beware the youth. You do not know how they themselves develop shall,” from our old pal Confucius.

All this struggle with language comes to the fore when I go to my volunteer job. I’ve been working for a few weeks with a group called Books4Life (Dutch organization, English slang name, par for the course). On Friday afternoons, I sit at a bookstall and sell donated books at cut-rate prices to tourists, university students, and kooky regulars. The money we raise is then donated to charities. This is also where I found my Oriental Wijsheden book.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the bookshelves inside this tiny stall are about 20’ tall, with books arranged in alphabetical order, starting at the top. There’s a rickety ladder you can use to climb up to the A’s, and someone must have gone up there at least once, but I’ve never seen anyone get higher than the E’s.

At work, my most commonly used sentences are “Dag” (Good day), “Dat kost twee euros” (That costs two euros), and “Sorry, ik spreek geen nederlands” (Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch). You might think these three phrases are a bit of a contradiction, and so do the perplexed customers. I mean, I lead them to think I’ll be able to converse in Dutch, and then I pull the rug out from under them. Actually, I conduct these kind of tail-between-the-legs conversations all the time. I’ll march into a sandwich shop and ask for a “boterham met kip, alstublieft,” but then, when they ask me what kind of bread I prefer or whether I’d like a drink with that, I usually get flustered and reply that I don’t speak Dutch. Either that or I just try to discern whether “Ja” or “Nee” is the more appropriate response and bluff my way through the rest of the conversation.

On occasions like this, the term “sorry” is wholly appropriate. Unlike the French, who prefer the aloof “pardon,” Dutch people say sorry all the time. What a relief for a Midwesterner! Back when I lived in France, I was constantly telling people I was sorry. “Désolé” I just bumped your arm. “Désolé” I’m in your way at the check-out. “It’s no big deal,” the French people would say with emphasis, their eyes full of pity for what they perceived as meekness. In the Netherlands, though, “sorry” just rolls off the tongue. It’s like Wisconsin in that respect. Sorry, my bike is slightly blocking your path. Sorry, I’m not finished with my coffee quite yet. Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch. Feels like home.


To end this post, a few other shots from here and there.

Notice the type of “kerk” pictured here. And so many flowers in this stylish city.

A couple of shots from a daytrip to Zaandam, with its many old windmills and a one-euro ferry I took across the river.

And, of course, this guy, who must be working up some monster thigh muscles with the daily carpool.