Everyone says that all the Dutch people in Amsterdam speak English. You won’t find anyone who will only speak Dutch to you, they say. It’s a port city, it’s a city of merchants, it’s an international city, it’s the Mensa headquarters, whatever reason: it’s just not going to happen.
And everyone says that we won’t find any ice cream here in the winter. Not until summer, or at least late April, they say. The diets here are reasonable, we think about the season, now is the time for hot chocolate, soup, and whatever else: it’s just not going to happen.
No Dutch-speakers, no ice cream, it’s not possible, they all said.
Well you were all wrong. It’s pouring and miserable and I’m in the most international city on earth and today I found an ice cream vendor that speaks no English. It’s the little things that make me happy at this point. The little things, and proving other people wrong.
This man wasn’t even old! It was a non-English-speaking young man!
I haven’t had an at-gunpoint opportunity to practice any Dutch until today, at the magic ice cream shop. Not that it was a gunpoint scenario. It’s just that usually when people get to the hard questions, or any questions, they switch to English.
In my moment of panic I couldn’t remember how to say that I don’t speak Dutch, and could only recall how to tell him that “my Dutch is not so hot.”
“My Dutch is not so hot.” I told him in very slow Dutch, saying what really did not need to be said.
Standing in the ice cream shop, looking back and forth between the rain outside and the ice cream selling man, I thought about whoever’s job it is to store new Dutch words I learn on notecards, file them in my brain, and then retrieve them at the moment they become useful. “Not so hot!” I imagined her scribbling on a piece of posterboard. “Let’s keep this one handy. Right at the front, with the lyrics to every Magnetic Fields song and the words to the LDS sacrament prayers in German!!!” As I silently begged her to remind me how to say something else, anything else, she left to take a smoke break and tossed the burning match on whatever other Dutch vocabulary I had.
“I am American. I am an American woman.” I told the very patient man. “Now. HERE. Now, …Netherlands?”
Being in this ice cream place made me feel like a kid again: not because they had stroopwafel flavored ice cream and peanut-M&M milkshakes, but because the non-English-speaking man asked me how long I’ve lived here. I wanted to tell him that I’ve been in Amsterdam 3 weeks, but I only know how to say the word for “days,” and the biggest number I know is 14, so I had to improvise a bit and say I’ve been here 14 days.
It’s been a long time since the biggest number I knew was that small. If I had to tell you how long it’s been, and I had to tell you in Dutch, I would tell you it’s been 14 years.