One Night in Naarden makes a tired man mumble

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written Thursday 12 December 2002

One Night in Naarden makes a tired man mumble

Three nights, actually. Three nights in Naarden make a tired man mumble.

My first trip to the Netherlands, not counting a plane connection some years back. I want to jot these first foggy, jet-lagged, naive, and totally unfair impressions fast, before I change my mind. I'm sure I'll look back on these and groan some day.

The Dutch Language.....................
With only two weeks' notice of this trip, I needed some way to cram the language. Now, Florida's being a third-world state means it offers no Dutch TV or radio. I found a used book on Dutch pronunciation, and if I could read accurately through the glassine, dessicated spit and phlegm matting the pages (evidence that the book's previous owner had made some progress), its Introduction assured me of two things.

  1. To learn to pronounce Schiphol, IJmuiden, and opgegeten will require a sentence of two months, to be served serially not concurrently. This warning is probably true. After only one day, my throat matches the crimson of the Netherlands flag's top stripe. I wish the book's publisher had thought to include a 24-hour phone number for emergency bulk purchases of Cepacol.

  2. Dutch has no nasal vowels, as for example does French. OK, I know what they mean, but I can't quite agree. Long Dutch vowels before terminal R require more nostril flare than Jimmy Durante and Barbara Streisand after a fist fight. I present for your consideration "het paard", in which the R is as bizarre as when Billy Crystal teaches Meg Ryan to talk--never mind. Perhaps better, I could offer "Ja, maar..." with which the Dutch begin every other sentence, including questions, and which use no doubt explains why the Belgians in 1830 poured forth from the opera and demanded independence.

Now, look. The English language certainly owes an enormous debt to this nation of great sailors and their ancestors. It's been said that if the Normans had not conquered Britain in 1066, the Scots and Dutch would still understand each others' speech. This is very easy to believe when listening to an Amsterdam bar after work and hearing 100 Dutch businessmen sounding like 100 Sean Connerys auditioning for the part of Popeye, and then I want you to TELL me for certain that Dutch has no nasal vowels.

My Eastbound Flight.....................
In a cavernous Delta airliner. TV screens on every surface, which at first seemed very trendy, what with giving our position and altitude as we climbed out of JFK into the black void. But after dinner they turned the lights out, my only chance to sleep, and all those TVs mutated into sitcom hell with your eyes open and disco strobes with them closed. On and on and on, for hours and hours and thousands of miles. Imagine yourself a hostage, and the torture is to deprive you of sleep by setting off a camera flash every 5 seconds. Apparently, this winter's video fashion requires a white flash between each scene. This on top of four 4000-horsepower engines at full blast just beyond the thin metal at my ear. There was simply no relief to be had, no blessed oblivion whatever no matter how I contorted or jerkect or covered my eyes or cursed--but I'll leave my ex-wife out of this.

My game plan (have to dump these American idioms!) for Jet Lag is to get two hours' sleep minimum on any US-to-Europe flight. But not on this flight. I was resigned to a tough day when I heard the engines wind down and we started our descent into a foggy dark. With no trace of their previous demonic possession, the TVs showed us progressing over Glasgow, Haarlem, Schiphol and showed our altitude as: 10000 feet above sea level, 1000 feet, 100 feet, 30 feet ("uh, is someone awake up there?"), still gliding down, 5 feet [all first timers to Schiphol going white-knuckle now], 0 feet (!!!), MINUS 5 feet, MINUS 10 feet, MINUS 20 feet...and the bang and screech of tires and reversed engines. On the screen: "-22 feet." And then I get it. Holland. Pays-Bas. Low Countries. What's Dutch for "Very Freaking Funny"?

Setting Foot in Holland.....................
Off the plane. I must have presented my passport and got my luggage at some point. I do remember Customs, but I don't even want to talk about it. Apparently I angled 200 feet away from the normal line of exiting passengers, and I trued to get through a white steel door by waving my used boarding pass at it. Discretion precludes my mentioning the immediate, uniformed, gutteral aftermath. Well, these things happen; I wiped down my shirt front and followed them out of the Restricted Area.

I more or less remember the taxi. Rolling along the Ring at 8am it was dark as night. Of course, Amsterdam's night is not very dark. The landscape view from the taxi was flat as calm water, which of course is not accidental. The taxi driver remarked on the excellent weather. The canals on both sides of the road were frozen over.

The taxi driver. Yes, please remind me to walk, next trip. When he spied my phrase book, he insisted I try to pronounce a little Dutch. I must have obliged, because the next thing I remember were his barks of laughter and lurching of the taxi. He assured me that "No sir, in no way, sir--your accent in Dutch will never be mistaken for a German accent." I didn't remember asking anything like that. In fact, I couldn't imagine that I even had a coherent bad accent yet. He demanded, "You, Sir, you will please say: Scheveningen!" It came out not too badly. Still I cringed for the verdict. "Pretty good," he laughed and slapped the wheel. "Pretty good, the Resistance might not shoot you." Jesus. A Dutch comedian.

Dutch cuisine.....................
My first day was full of surprises. These are my first impressions (again probably unfair).

  1. Koffiemelk. Put it in your coffee, definitely. But try to live your whole life without tasting it straight. Trust me on this one.

  2. Cheese, part A. Met kaas (with cheese) is naturally assumed in all cases unless you specifically ask otherwise by saying geen kaas (without cheese). Now here's the nasty little trick: you will never in your life be able to pronounce geen kaas, so listen up: you are going to get your cheese, Buster.

  3. Cheese, part B. Cheese is added by default into all consumables: sandwiches, fruit dishes, soups, puddings, coffee, bottled water, and some toothpastes.

  4. Cheese, part C. Try to imagine the consistency of lasagne in a nation that charges less for a kilo of cheese than for a tomato. I dare you.

  5. Uitsmijter. In a perfect world, you could order this wonderful dish telepathically to spare your appetite from having to pronounce it before eating.

  6. Oriental food. My first meal, still no sleep. In my impaired judgment, I ordered "oriental chicken." What came was curried, had leeks, and looked and tasted distinctly South Pacific, or something, Indonesian, even. Indonesian. I slapped my forehead--Indonesia, Dutch. Duh.

Cookie protocol.....................
I might be getting this wrong, but this is what comes to mind that first afternoon. At the hotel door, a taxi collected me in my sleep. We stopped at the canalfront home of a young colleague and waited. From the house's lace curtains appeared a prim lady in a bun of white hair, waving me in. The driver insisted that this was the correct address and promised to wait. When I entered and wiped my feet carefully, she smiled and explained (I think) that her son was running late, and she offered me een kopje koffie. I smiled and nodded, and she understood. When she returned, the tray was doilied and the coffee was strong and very good. She daintily opened to me a tin of cookies. I thanked her and took one, and immediately she snapped the tin shut with a bang and strode out with it under her arm. I bit the cookie trying not to let escape a single crumb, but...I had not idea what I had done wrong. "Nothing!" her son explained to me later in the cab--"one cup of coffee gets one cookie. Never two. A second cup of coffee gets a second cookie. Calvin said so, I think." Part of me was relieved to know that at least I hadn't turned Dank U wel into some unknown Dutch obscenity (one that I probably couldn't have pronounced on purpose).

But still, many hours later, I twisted under down blankets from nightmares of this terrible wrinkled dinosaur with tiny hands, the graagedon, guillotining my fingers to the clap of a tin closing, all because in my sinful state I had reached for a second cookie.

Look. Don't reach for a second cookie. Don't do it. You could lose fingers. I'm sure of it. You've been warned.

posted by eric at 14.51 CET

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