Before you open a bike shop

My Dutch textbook doesn’t cover most of the things I’m interested in, but it does spend a lot of time teaching me how to ask people how they’re doing: Hoe gaat het. “Hoe gaat het?” asks every character in every single dialogue we listen to.

In the Dutch textbook there are pretty much only two ways things can be going: awfully good, or quite bad.

I’m not sure why we haven’t learned the word for “fine,” maybe it’s because the word for “fine” is so difficult to pronounce it requires at least a year of Dutch lessons. May be it’s a word that’s entirely consonants, or worse, entirely vowels. For now in our textbook life is lived in the extremes. In chapter two a man goes on a romantic vacation to Italy. In chapter eight his bike is stolen and in chapter nine he goes to the hospital, but by chapter ten it’s his birthday and he goes shopping for new pants. I understand. When every day involves either a trip to Venice or a trip to the emergency room, there is no fine. There is awfully good and there is quite bad and that is that.

The only person in real life I could think of who seemed to be living in a world of such disparate emotional states was a man who owns a bike shop in our neighborhood.

The bike shop I’m talking about is staffed by a very tall man with long curly hair. The door of the shop is always open and a few rental bikes are always outside, and the owner runs out frantically every few minutes, as though he’s always just now remembering he has a bike shop. Every time he runs out he looks either thrilled by the realization or horrified. He makes owning a bike shop seem like a real roller coaster, and if you’ve been daydreaming about retiring and owning a cute little bike shop somewhere, I would suggest you talk to him before you get too serious about it. We’d never spoken before, until yesterday.

Yesterday as I was walking past with groceries he lit up when he saw me, and he asked me “Hoe gaat het?”

Awfully good! I told him in Dutch. I could hardly believe my luck that a stranger had asked me the very question I’ve listened to over a thousand times while working my way through my remedial Dutch textbook.

Right away it became clear that the bike shop owner had thought I was someone else, someone he knew. He got flustered and said something I didn’t understand, and began gesturing as though he was tapping the side of an invisible stovepipe hat he was wearing. Maybe he mistook me for a friend who usually wears them.

But people don’t speak Dutch with me very often and there was no way I was letting this conversation end that quickly.

And with you, I asked. “Hoe gaat het?”

He was also doing awfully good.

My vocabulary doesn’t end at hoe gaat het, there are three more questions I know how to answer in Dutch and luckily he asked one of them next: where are you from. I also know how to respond to the questions “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” and “What color are your eyes and hair?” but he didn’t ask. I guess he wasn’t feeling that chatty.

I don’t know how to say it’s nice to meet you, but I know how to say that it’s truly an honor to make your acquaintance, so I told him so with a small curtsey, in hopes that he would think I was a visiting dignitary, princess, or lunatic.

But I meant it, it was truly an honor to make his acquaintance. I hope we meet again on another awfully good day. I hope we’re both wearing stovepipe hats. And I hope mine is large enough that it conceals my face and he has to ask what color my eyes and hair are, because no one has asked me that yet and it sort of feels like I learned it for nothing.

A kid in our neighborhood (I’m assuming it’s a kid) draws on the sidewalk almost every day. Here’s a plane.

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