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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Hoe spel je dat

Forget periods, bar mitzvahs, or the legal voting age, I think I became an adult when I started dreading getting mail.

There is nothing worse than a bunch of sealed envelopes filled with notes form people I might have to pay or may have already paid, mixed in with sealed envelopes filled with advertisements and sealed envelopes filled with scams, mixed in with the occasional sealed envelope with a letter from my grandmother in it. I have a vague memory of mail being all about getting birthday cards full of money, but now I mostly get birthday cards from former dentists and they never have money in them, just notes about how a birthday is a good time to schedule an annual cleaning.

In Portland I would wait so long to check the mail that the mailman (he was a man, I met him) would sort through it and throw away my junk mail, to make more space in the mailbox. I thought this was a service USPS provided that everyone made use of, but a few people have told me I was wrong about that.

I also thought moving would be a way to escape mail, but apparently I was wrong about that too. There is just as much mail. The only difference is now all of it is in a language we can’t read.

When a piece of mail arrives here I can tell it’s going to be about one of the following things:

Just kidding I don’t have a clue what it’s about!

It could be a bill, it could be an insurance form, a ransom note, a contest entry, a poem, a bank statement, or an invitation to a birthday party.

I don’t even know which part of the letter is the salutation: I just realized this week that the word I thought was the name of our insurance company is actually just the word for “city.” Or it can also mean township or village, or just an area people live in.

This week I needed to mail a form to a museum and I didn’t really understand any of the form, but it seemed to say I could put it in an envelope, write the address on the envelope, and then put the envelope in a mailbox with no stamp. That seemed ridiculous, so I wrote the address and then went to buy a stamp. As I was about to put the stamp on, the woman I’d bought the stamp from glanced over at my envelope and said that address didn’t need a stamp.

Weird, I told her, that’s the same thing the form inside this envelope said.

“This word is how you know” she said, pointing to a ten-syllable word that looked like all the other words on the envelope.

So there you go. Now I have a stamp in my pocket that I’m saving for later.

I’m not sure how to end this except to say that if someone gives you three wishes today and you have one to spare, and you use one to wish that we get less mail, I will be forever indebted to you. I will not miss those birthday cards from any of my former dentists, I will not miss the sealed envelopes full of advertisements, and I will not miss the mail we’re getting now, whatever it is.

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Sometimes it’s nice out lately, here’s a photo.

Tiny horse

Is there anything scarier than the idea of an accomplice?

I first learned about the concept when I moved to France after college. In Marseille people love to warn you about pickpockets, always plural.

See that guy, asking if you dropped a Euro? What trouble could he possibly be? But he has an accomplice, who takes your wallet while you’re distracted. If anyone bumps into you on your left, their accomplice on your right is probably cutting your purse.

Accomplices don’t have to wear uniforms, or matching t-shirts, or anything like that. So conceivably anyone could be working together, and in my mind everyone was. That’s the thing about accomplices.

See that elderly woman crossing your path slowly to feed an injured pigeon a leftover baguette? Well she might be accomplices with that construction worker climbing down the ladder of the building next door, and the two of them could be in cahoots with one of those teenagers listening to music. Which teenager? I don’t know, maybe the one closest to us? And hey that injured pigeon could be in on it too. Don’t rule anyone out, that’s the thing about accomplices.

I don’t think Marseille really has too many pickpockets because my wallet never once got stolen. But it’s a hard thought to shake. And now in Amsterdam, a city with I think even less crime, my fears have moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Now I no longer worry about losing my money, I worry about losing my dignity. And unlikely accomplices are still the problem. I’m fine with making a fool of myself at the cash register, but what about the possible exchange the cashier has with the next customer after I’ve left?

“I can’t believe she brought the oranges she wanted to buy to the register, instead of weighing them with a small derelict machine at the back of the store and printing the weight of the oranges on a sticker and bringing the sticker to the register.” The next customer will say, and the cashier will be right there with her.

“I know – what does she think this is, every other grocery store in the world?”

Yesterday when someone asked if I needed a receipt I said no, which in Dutch is spelled nee and pronounced neigh.

“Neigh.” I said, somehow making eye contact with all thirty people in my vicinity at once. And then a little louder, in case it hadn’t been loud enough: “NEIGH.”

I threw in a bunch of thank-you’s too, but those are harder to spell.

I think there are two solutions to being worried about having dignity stolen by groups of unlikely strangers: either have no dignity to steal, or a never-ending supply.

But I haven’t decided which to do, so I’m always somewhere in the middle, walking around with the exact amount of dignity I need to get by.

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I took this photo yesterday so I would have a photo to post with this.

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.