Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
Let’s start with the basics. I’ve said it before, everyone else has said it before, and we all know the story: Dutch people are Good at Languages.
What you might not know is that this can sometimes lead to what the Flemish historian Sophie De Schaapdrijver describes as “repressive tolerance”. To put it simply, the Dutch are an easygoing, tolerant folk. You like having foreigners in your country (as long as they don’t do anything suspect, of course, like come from Morocco or read the Koran). You want to make us feel comfortable. You also like to wheel out your marvellous English at any chance you get. So when we speak in Dutch, your path is clear. You MUST speak back in English.
To illustrate, let me treat you to the following excerpt from an ongoing personal saga that I like to call “Dialoguing with the Dutch”. Location: the Maastricht post office, before they closed it, that is (but that’s another long and irritated story). Date: Not so long ago that I’m over it yet.
Me: “Wat kost het een pakket te versturen binnen Europa?”
(All right. I’m sure it’s not pretty Dutch. But the point is: you KNOW what I’m trying to say.)
The postal worker (in English, and unmistakeably looking down his nose): “Is it an International Packet Basic or an International Packet Plus?”
Me (to self): It’s cool. He’s just being polite. You can do this. Just keep trying.
Me (out loud): “Wat is het verschil?”
Him (stubbornly carrying on in English): “Depends on how much it weighs.”
Me (equally stubbornly): “Ongeveer vijf kilo, volgens mij.”
“Then it’s a Package Plus.”
“En wat kostet dit?”
(It’s a battle of the wills now. Neither of us are prepared to back down.)
“Whether it’s EU zone 1 or zone 2.”
“Wat is het verschil?”
“Where are you sending it?”
“Engeland.” (One-word answer comes as a relief; I’m starting to tire.)
Him, smirking: “I could tell from your accent.”
Me, smirking back: “Ik ben geen Englander.”
Him: “Oh.” (Momentarily off balance.) “Sorry hoor, ik dacht dat ik een licht accent hoorde en tja, er zijn hier ook zoveel buitenlanders dat ik er altijd maar gewoon van uitga dat ik in het Engels moet praten. Maar okay, hoe wil je het versturen? Met de gewone post of is het superspoed?”
Me: “Er.” (Cursing to self.) “I’m going to need you to repeat that …”