Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 22, 2008 8:53PM

A Visit to Holland

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MY MOUTH loves to wrap itself around the complexities of foreign languages, and I think that I probably have always wanted to learn as many as possible because you never know when we’re going to have to get the hell out of here and find another country to live in, at the rate things are going-- like a good Boy Scout, I want  to be prepared. So far, I can get along in Spanish and Italian and extremely bad French, yet I would fare excellently in Norwegian should the need arise. I can deal in Albanian with the aid of a large dictionary, and of course I speak Brooklynese and Fargo fluently. My next project is to become fluent in Dutch, which my friends think is because I want to talk to Amsterdam’s window boys in their native tongue: “Is that a javelin in your lap or are you just glad to see me? HOW much?! What is that in Euros? WHAT!! I still need money for souvenirs!!”

My little Dutch grammar book has a picture of a windmill on the cover, some tulips, men with funny hats, and a lot of people riding bicycles. Inside, the learning dialogues are typically hilarious-- I am invited to follow the comings and goings of Elisabeth Pronk and Saskia Groeneveld as they wend their merry ways through Dutch life. It seems the most trying aspect of their days is an American named Helen Thompson, who is so intent on learning to speak Dutch that, by Chapter Two, she has apparently decided that she must introduce herself to every man, woman, and child in Holland. “Hello. My name is Helen Thompson. What is your name?”  “Hallo. Mijn naam is Helen Thompson. Wat is jouw naam?”  See how similar the two languages are? The pronunciation of Dutch, however, sounds like what would happen if you tried to teach your cigarette-smoking Schnauzer to talk—it’s not exactly the most romantic-sounding language on the planet.

In any event, the Misses Pronk and Groeneveld spend much of their time avoiding Helen by ducking into hashish cafes or slipping into porn cinemas. In Chapter Seven, Saskia is hit on the head by a windmill paddle and must be rushed to the hospital; within those hoary pages you learn the Dutch words for cat scan, internal bleeding, and last will and testament. Happily, she is pronounced well by Chapter Nine, and is able to sit up in bed and receive a long and anxious visit from the very concerned Helen Thompson. “Hallo. Mijn naam is Helen Thompson. Wat is jouw naam?” Helen has come bearing tulips, which Saskia would toss out the nearest window if the Dutch hadn’t so many laws against such things. At this point, Elisabeth  Pronk appears, and her intense dislike for Helen boils over into a nasty exchange in which hurtful words are flung, reputations are sundered, and international ties severed beyond repair. Saskia’s feeding tube comes undone, and poor Helen is blamed and taken away. Chapter Twelve brings us to the politie station in Amsterdam, where the hapless American is being interrogated prior to her deportation. All she can do is sob in her own defense, “mijn naam is Helen Thompson. Wat is jouw naam?”  but nobody seems to care. At this point I am too distraught to continue to Chapter Thirteen, as I am afraid of what the ostensibly happy Dutch have in store for Helen. However, after a short break, I am gratified to discover that all is well again; Saskia and Elisabeth have decided to take Helen for a stroll along the canals, with a stop perhaps at the Anne Frank House, and we learn the Dutch for “do you have family? And do any of them know you are visiting Holland?” Of course, all Helen can do is babble in reply, “mijn naam is Helen Thompson. Wat is jouw naam?” and the chapter ends with a splash.

I am  not yet proficient in Dutch, so I’d stay away from Pronk and Groeneveld if I should ever find myself in the Land of Dikes and Wooden Shoes. Just in case, I will memorize the Dutch for “take me to the American Embassy immediately!”

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This made me laugh immoderately. Helen Thompson and her ilk have waltzed through many of my how-to-speak-x books, but never to quite such devastation.