The licorice tea box says you’re not supposed to drink it every day.

Our temporary one-month apartment in Amsterdam is furnished with enough things to get by, and enough things to make the things it’s not furnished with really stand out.

The apartment comes with three cutting boards, but no paring knife.

The apartment comes with floor cleaner, counter cleaner, toilet cleaner, dish detergent, laundry detergent, but no hand soap.

The apartment comes with dishes, but instead of mugs it has tiny little teacups the size (but not shape) of golf balls.

If a higher power designed dishes instead of animals and planets, all teacups would be the exact size of the tiny ones in our temporary apartment. That way I wouldn’t drink half a gallon of licorice tea before going to sleep, and then wake up twice in the night. But licorice tea is delicious, so I just refill the golf-ball sized teacups many times, or line up a few cups of licorice tea and drink little tea shots, like someone at a crazy college party with the queen.

There’s also a small saucepan with a lid, and also a large lid for a large pot, but no large pot. The large lid to the nonexistent large pot keeps me up at night, when licorice tea doesn’t. There must have once been a pot. And that lid knows what happened, but it will never tell.

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Birds on a railing, this has nothing to do with temporary apartments.


You’re one in fourteen.

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.


Learning to speak Dutch isn’t karate, but if it were, it seems like the white belt would be learning to maneuver a conversation at a supermarket. And I would probably have a lot of bruises.

I thought supermarket transactions were a good starting point because, unless something strange is happening, people only say a few different things at a grocery store. They want you to give them money. Or they want you to use cash. Or they want to know if you need a bag. It’s easy enough.

There’s only one part that so complicated that no matter how many times I visit the grocery store and no matter how many wortels I buy, I still haven’t learned it. Every single time I’ve almost made it through a perfectly-executed (ok, almost adequately-executed) Dutch conversation, they say something so confusing and unfamiliar that I have to ask them to say it in English, and they do:

“Would you like a receipt?”

Memorizing the Dutch word for receipt seemed like the simplest solution to the problem that is the complicated string of words you hear after you hand someone money. But I swear the word receipt changes every time.

They say that eskimos have 100 words for snow, but what they don’t mention that is that the Dutch have 100 words for receipt.

A slip of white paper printed with proof of a monetary transaction is an object so beautiful and multifaceted that it requires an entire section of a vocabulary to describe it. To you it’s just proof that you bought a juice and two blocks of cheese, but to a mathematician it’s poetry, and in a Dutch grocery store it’s the key to the whole universe. How could one word ever do that justice?

One word at a time.

Brooke, to her Dutch coworker by the coffee machine: Hey, morning!

Dutch coworker: Goedemorgen.

Brooke, to herself silently: Oh no. Goedemorgen.

Brooke, to herself quietly on the way to her desk: Goedemorgen. Goedemorgen.

Brooke, out loud to herself the rest of the day. Goede. Morgen. Goe. De. Mor. Gen.

Brooke, over and over at her desk the next afternoon: Goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen goedemorgen.

Brooke, to the same Dutch coworker by the coffee machine: Goede morgen!!

Dutch coworker: Goedemiddag.

Brooke, to herself silently: Oh no. Goedemiddag.

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Here’s a building with a picture of a castle on it.