Sunday, 27 January 2013

Lost in Translation

The international programs at UU are taught in English, and as a rule Dutch people speak English quite fluently and willingly. However, awkward collisions between Dutch and English are unavoidable. Here are a few tips for navigating the language highway.

Beware automatic translators on Dutch websites! Like satnav, they can lead you astray. Recently I was seeking information about spinning classes on a Dutch health club web site and was surprised to find that the club offered, in bold type, “Virtual Spiders!” Which only makes sense once you realize “spin” in Dutch means “spider,” and the plural, “spinnen” translates to “spiders.” Otherwise, you might mistake a cycling class for a horror movie. Then again, perhaps virtual spiders are included as motivation to spin especially vigorously!
When speaking Dutch, be careful about slipping in English words that don’t necessarily translate well. For example, the Dutch word for “wife” is “vrouw.” The sound-alike Dutch word, “wijf,” is a perjorative term meaning “bitch” or “old bag.” So unless you really don’t like somebody’s wife, take care when referring to her as such! Also, note that the Dutch word for buttocks is “bil.” This just might account for the amused expression you receive when you politely ask for your “bill” after dinner. And the nickname for William, “Willem” in Dutch, is “Wim,” so your new friend Willem might misunderstand if you ask whether you can him “Bill.”
Also be careful with Dutch words that sound similar but have very different meanings. For example, “borstel” means brush, while “borsten” means breasts. So, when shopping for a hair brush, don’t ask the clerk whether she has borsten and where they may be located. And using "kers," cherry, when you meant "kaars," candle, might find you looking for candles in the produce aisle. 
Of course, awkward translations also abound when a Dutch speaker slips in a  Dutch word while speaking English. My mother once had a Dutch friend who cheerfully informed her new American in-laws that she was going upstairs for a “douche,” which in Dutch means shower. Thanks for sharing! My aged Dutch grandmother used to raise eyebrows when asking for “prik,” soda, in American restaurants. And “dik” means fat, thick, or bulky, but might be misconstrued when describing someone as a little dik.
Even a technically correct translation will not always translate well. For example, in asking for a match or lighter in America, you would ask for a “light.” However, if you use the proper Dutch word for light, “licht,” you may be quizzically referred to a nearby lamp. In Dutch, you would ask for “vuur,” fire, and matches are “lucifers.” I imagine a Dutch person asking an American for fire or Lucifer might be misunderstood, as well!
So buy a good Dutch/English dictionary, take Dutch classes through ING, go to language exchange Meet Up groups, and practice, practice, practice! Meanwhile, I am off to the gym for some virtual spiders. I shall work my bill off, have a quick douche, find my borsten, and then set some cherries on fire with Lucifer -- sounds relaxing, no?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

50 Grades of Pay

“She brought her selections to the counter, eyeing his long fingers poised over the till, and wondered whether to give him a warm bit of plastic or cold, hard cash….” Paying for merchandise and living expenses is something you normally do without a great deal of thought. But as an international student in the Netherlands, you must get a passing grade in paying your way in order to live here for any length of time. So, here’s everything you need to know about paying in the Netherlands.* (*But were afraid to ask)

First, you need a Dutch bank account. You cannot get a phone plan, personal OV chip card, or make any sort of automatic payment without one. Everything is geared toward payment with a debit (“pin”) card from a Dutch bank. Without that pin, it don’t mean a thin’! And with the pin card comes the “random reader” for internet purchases and online banking. (Not a Kindle, a “Pindle”!) You must slide your card into this device, follow numerous prompts, obtain a code and submit it online before you can complete any sort of internet transaction. No, it really isn’t a field sobriety test, just a means of protecting your bank account from internet rogues. Safe text, as it were.
Second, forget about linking anything for automatic payment to your credit card, or for that matter, using your credit anywhere other than places accustomed to tourists. It just won’t be accepted. Again, you need that pin card, or cash. Understand that credit cards are the exception here, not the rule. And most Dutch credit cards are automatically paid off monthly from the cardholder’s Dutch bank account, which for most people negates the whole point of having a credit card in the first place! But also the reason personal debt here rarely spirals out of control. More than one person has commented to me that moving here has forced them to live within their means, in a liberatingly debt-free way. Nothing like an honest buck with no strings attached!
Getting a Dutch bank account is not so simple, however. It is a rather lengthy  courtship. As with everything else, it is highly regulated. You must get a residence permit, a BSN number (like a social security number), and register with the city in which you reside. UU does a great job in efficiently taking care of the residence permit for students, as well as providing details on city registration and so forth. And, UU works with Rabobank to provide for student accounts that can be activated as soon as school begins, before the rest of the details have been completed. But you must later provide the bank with those details or they will freeze your account, as I discovered to my chagrin. There I was, horrified to think someone had hacked my account, and it was just good ole’ Dutch regulation at work! Regulation, I might add, that tends to prevent such fraud in the first place.
So there you have it, the ins and outs of paying in the Netherlands. As easy (and as regulated) as a red light district. Have fun, spend wisely and  be safe!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The New Normal

You know you are becoming Dutch when all the things that seemed so different become quite normal. So how do you know when you are really at home in Utrecht? 
You don’t bother to see whether it’s raining or how cold it is before deciding whether to go out; you just deal with it.
You heart is no longer in your mouth when cycling on a narrow street shared with pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and hoards of other cyclists, not to mention construction zones; you just move over, go around, go with the flow… and ping that bell!
You stop arriving everywhere 30 minutes early because you realize that if you leave five minutes beforehand you will still be on time.
You get seriously annoyed when those always-timely trains arrive even 5 minutes late. After all, the Dutch love to complain!
You find yourself speaking Dutch with that upper octave lilt, especially when saying “Doei!”
You find that you actually like bitterballen.
You expect the beer to be both very good and very cheap.
You leave the Netherlands and think everyone must have shrunk a foot.  
You leave the Netherlands and astonish people by laying three kisses on them.
You no longer marvel at the second lives of old churches as apartments or bars.
When paying for items, you understand that “pin” is a verb and has nothing to do with needles.
You drink tap water because it is just as good as bottled water – and a lot cheaper!
When ordering water in restaurants, you specify still or sparkling. And you are no longer surprised that iced tea is always sparkling.
You reckon a clean public bathroom is worth the 30 cents you must pay to use it.
You expect your coffee to be fantastic without paying Starbucks prices, which suddenly seem pretty exorbitant.
You no longer are surprised to see cats in stores or dogs in restaurants.
You just start climbing several stories on those incredibly steep stairs without wondering if there is an elevator.
You realize fries are much better with mayo than with catsup.
You are accustomed to being on a first-name basis with everyone, including your teachers and doctors.
You think pedicures are a waste of time and money as your feet won’t see the light of day anyway.
You own and actually use an agenda.
The numbered bike routes start making sense.
You no longer expect streets to keep the same names as they progress.  
You realize the only crime you really need to worry about can be prevented or at least rendered less likely with a good bike lock.
You no longer squeal, ooh and point at every old windmill you see. Although, you never stop smiling at them!
You appreciate frankness without equating it with rudeness.
However, one thing you never, ever, stop noticing and being delighted with is the fact that every cup of coffee or tea is always served with a cookie or piece of chocolate!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Oud en Nieuw

I arrived back in Phoenix for the holidays, blinking like a vampire blinded by all that sunshine! It all comes back to me. Wearing shorts, giggling at comments about the chilly mid-60’s weather. Get out the parkas! Driving a car for the first time since last summer, having to drive forty minutes to get anywhere, and then not being able to have a beer since I have to drive back. Driving on the five-lane freeway with the grill of a monster truck filling my rear-view mirror. News broadcasts detailing the usual local shootings, ongoing discussions about arming teachers. (Really.) But hiking up an actual mountain! And meeting someone on the trail who went to school in the Netherlands years ago wanting to try out his Dutch again. Santa hats and Christmas ornaments perched whimsically on large cacti, and gorgeous, vividly surrealistic sunsets. Okay, largely due to the wintertime pollution inversion layer, but pretty spectacular nonetheless! Holiday reunions with family and friends, visiting former colleagues, and feeling very missed. Basking in the warmth of the old and familiar, in a very new city of over five million people from all over the US. Not much has changed. Except me, perhaps.
Three airports, two train stations, and one soggy walk through the rain, suitcase clattering over the cobblestone, and I am back home in Utrecht. Dragging my bag into my 400-year-old house in the city center, exhausted with jet lag torpor but unlikely to sleep anytime soon, I go to my completely modern kitchen, look in the fridge and ponder whether I should go to Albert Heine for some groceries. After all, it’s just a walk up the street and open late. Checking my email, I find one of my meet up groups is having a get together right up the street as well. Unpacking can wait. I walk down the narrow street amidst the cheerful chatter of bundled-up pedestrians and cyclists, their breath in the chill air forming vaporous cartoon dialogue bubbles, and go into a gezellig, warm cafĂ©. I have a beer (after all, it’s a short walk back home!) with new friends with all sorts of accents and varying degrees of English and Dutch proficiency, and even a fellow ‘Merican from Colorado. All are basking in the crowded warmth of new beginnings in a very old city of 300,000 people, with students and expats from all over the world. Groceries, too, can wait, after all there is plenty of time and everything is so close! Yes, George Bailey, it is, indeed, a Wonderful Life! I am happy to be back.
In the Netherlands, Oud en Nieuw, “Old and New,” is celebrated with fireworks and sparklers. In Phoenix, as in many places in the US, New Year’s Eve is celebrated by gunshots fired in the air. And so my old year in the New World ends with a bang, and my new year in the Old World begins with a sparkling display of hope for the future. Out with the new, in with the old, we'll take a cup o' kindness yet!