‘Wie kan ik helpen?’ asks the older woman behind the fruit and veg stand. Her long, grey hair is plaited over the front of her head, and down into a long braid over her shoulder. It’s the same every week. Her face has the look of someone who has spent her life outside, working too hard. It’s weathered and lined, and a little stern, but it softens into a smile when she tells you which are the best vegetables to buy that week.
‘Mij, bedankt.’ I say, my stomach flipping about, but I am determined to get through this experience using as much dutch as I can muster. I get a smile, earlier than normal, and I feel like I’ve won a prize. As if I’ve somehow crossed over from tourist to tolerated expat. Not quite part of the community but not on the outside either.
I order the mountain of vegetables we go through each week in our very busy, hungry house, quickly filling one basket and then another. I hand over cotton bags, to avoid the paper bags they use, and she nods. Approval. I’m jubilant.
‘Deze are goed (these are good),’ says a tall, very striking woman next to me, pointing at the cotton bags. The dutch are all very tall. I’m 175cm, which I hadn’t thought was particularly short until I moved here. Maybe it’s all the years on bicycles, I don’t know. I’m certainly the fittest I’ve been in a long time, but it doesn’t matter how much I ride, I will never have that effortlessly chic, tall, slim thing happening. I stoop to pick up the bananas that are spilling out of the bag.
‘Ja, bedankt, (Yes, thanks)’ I say. I don’t have enough dutch now, so I revert to English. I bought them online, from an American website I think. They’re really great. I show her the brand, and she makes a note.
The woman behind the counter brings over a kohlrabi and holds it up. I hadn’t ordered that, but I’ll take it. I like kohlrabi, it’s not my favourite vegetable, but it’s good to have new things. I’ll mix it in with potato and make a mash.
‘What do you call this?’ she asks me.
‘Kohlrabi,’ I say, ‘what do you call it?’
‘Oh, kohlrabi. It’s the same. I had a man here earlier, he spoke English, he called it something else.’
‘It’s kohlrabi in Australia,’ I offer.
We finish up and she tells me the amount in dutch. Joy of all joys, I can actually understand the number.
‘Fine weekend (have a good weekend),’ she says handing me the receipt.
‘Tot ziens (see you next time),’ I say back.
Later, still buoyed up by my success, I meet my husband for dinner.
‘Ik heb gereseveered, voor twee (I have a reservation for two),’ I say to the waiter who greets me at the door. I give him the name.
He looks at the book but shakes his head. ‘Nee (No).’
‘Tafel voor twee? (Table for two)’
‘Ja, graag (yes, please), he says, indicating that I follow him. I sit down and order water, in dutch, and feel like I’m the most amazing person in the world.
When I do actually make it to my dutch lessons, I will finally be one of the good students — my children have a knack for being too ill for school on Tuesdays, on Mondays they are fine, on Wednesdays they are fine, but Tuesdays no, one or the other of them is too ill. I have actually missed more lessons than I have attended, which means that I am always the most useless in the class. Most weeks, I sit there, my heart racing, waiting for the teacher to call on me and knowing that I am going to get it wrong. I feel like I did when I was 14 years old when my maths teacher would finish the lesson with a rapid fire times tables test. If you didn’t answer the multiplication that was slung your way within three seconds you had to write the whole times table for that number out 20 times. For the rest of my life, I will always know that 6 x7 is 42, and will likewise feel a little queasy whenever I hear it.
So there I sit, in my Dutch class, trying to be invisible, which is tricky in a room of 10 people, praying to the academic gods that my teacher might somehow forget to call on me. She never forgets, of course, and I’m usually wrong. But not tonight. Tonight I am the language queen.
‘Your looking very proud of yourself,’ says my husband, kissing my cheek and sitting down.
‘I did it,’ I say, still not quite believing it myself. ‘I did the whole thing in dutch.’
He smiles in that way he does when he is proud of me, and I feel chuffed. I grin like an idiot, ignoring the part of me that thinks that I’m really too old to need this kind of validation. I keep grinning, even when the meals come out wrong.