When ‘a’ is an ‘e’ and you have no idea how to pronounce your address

‘Where are you?’ asks the Uber driver over the phone.  My mum and I are at Ikea, picking up a few bits and pieces for the house.

‘Near the uitgang,’ I say pronouncing it oo-it-gang.  The uber driver laughs, ‘I know where you are.’

I don’t recognise or understand a thing in this country.  I can’t even tell the difference between full cream milk and half full.  In the supermarket, I cannot understand what the credit card machine is saying, I just hit buttons and hope for the best.  When the salesman asks me a question, I smile politely.  I don’t even know how to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch’.

We receive a handwritten note through our mailbox.  It is lengthy.  Someone has taken the time to construct this for us, but we have no idea what it says.  My husband takes it to work and asks his PA to translate it.   It turns out we are putting our bulky rubbish on the street at the wrong time.  Anything that doesn’t fit in the rubbish bin – a very small green post box looking thing on the nature strip, that apparently holds the entire street’s rubbish – has to wait until Monday night after 9 pm to go out.  We had carelessly been leaving our empty cardboard boxes whenever we felt like it.  The kindly note explained that we could be fined if we continued to do so.  We stopped.

When a taxi driver fails to understand when I tell him the name of our street, I decide I have had enough of smiling politely, of not knowing what anyone is saying, of not being able to respond to kids in the playground, it is time I try to learn this language.

Another mum at the girls’ school, who happens to be a fellow Melbournite, our nanny and her fiancé all sign up for lessons.

Maaike, a lovely dutch woman, with long blonde hair that is tucked up into a bun on the top of her head, knocks on our front door and introduces herself.  I avoid using her name as I don’t know how to pronounce it properly.  This, of course, makes it very difficult to get her attention.

Maaike introduces us to the dutch alphabet and helpfully explains why the bank and the IND keep spelling my name wrong.  It turns out that in dutch, the letter ‘a’ is pronounced ‘uh’, and the letter ‘e’ is pronounced ‘a.’  The dutch also like to enunciate every letter, so the ‘e’ on the end of my name has morphed into an ‘a’ and now I’m Sabina.  My sense of self is a very fluid construct right now.

The lessons continue, and we spend the better part of the next 6 weeks working on the pronunciation of the letter ‘g’, and ‘k’.  I sound as though I am choking and somewhere near death.  After weeks of practising the basics, I finally feel ready to give it a try.

Now, I have extraordinarily high performance anxiety, and that paired with my terror of getting things wrong, means that while I may have learned the basics, I have stubbornly refused to use any of them outside of our lessons.  But suddenly I confident calm descends and I am ready, finally ready to give it a go.  I sit in the taxi on the way back from the airport and rehearse my address, over and over, and over again.  Honderd zes en negentig, honderd zes en negentig, honderd zes en negentig.

‘Where to?’ asks the driver, his eyes meeting mine in the rear vision mirror.

I falter, I freeze, and then I mumble the street name running ‘honderd, zes en negentig,’ into one horrendous mashup.

He shakes his head, but I don’t care, I’m elated.  I had done it, terribly, but I had done it.

‘Dutch is a bit like the guitar,’ the man says.

I smile, having never really played the guitar.

‘Unless you can do it perfectly, you shouldn’t do it at all.’

I continue smiling, thinking this is some kind of Dutch joke I don’t get.  And then I realise I am the Dutch joke.

I want to get out of the car, but I’m a block from my house and that will really only affect me.  I want to rant, to rave, to say something to defend myself but I’ve nothing.  I am small, insignificant, stupid.

‘Makes it hard to learn,’ I say, after the longest pause, I feel proud of myself.   Usually, I just cry and then complain to my husband later.

‘Why would you need to?’ he asks, the arrogance in his voice not wavering.

‘Because I live here.’

‘Not permanently, though.’

‘Maybe.’

‘Oh,’ it was the closest to a conciliatory tone I was likely to get.

It would be another 2 months before I would dare to say anything other than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Dutch.

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