Sticking my foot in it.

My Dutch isn’t perfect, let’s put it that way.

Last week I was excited for my first week at work. This week I am lamenting the fact that I managed to stick my foot in it precisely two times, on my first two full days of employment. That’s right. I fucked up twice at my new job this week.

To be fair, I’ve always been told it’s quite difficult to offend a Dutch person; mostly because they are quite forward with their own thoughts and expressions there-of. So perhaps it’s not as bad as I think. Perhaps my family and friends back in England laughed because what I did was funny. Not because I really messed up. Their laughter definitely wasn’t nervous and they weren’t using it to mask their pain and embarrassment.

Naturally, I’ve met new colleagues this week, and, being the human being that I am, I want to fit in. I want people to like me. So I’m trying, I really am. I’m attempting to speak Dutch to people. I still feel the need to tell people I’m English when we first meet, as though it automatically deletes any incorrect pronunciation or badly spoken sentences. Turns out, everyone knows.

“Yes, I can tell because of your accent…”.

Fair enough.

There’s one colleague who speaks really quickly though, and I have extreme difficulty understanding everything she says. This is by no means a ‘problem’. I simply need to catch up, and sharpish. So, said colleague and I join each other for lunch, and I’m chatting away, asking as many questions as I physically know how, in order to make her do most of the talking. It’s working, and what’s more, we’re onto the subject of cats; something I know a little about, and something I adore. It’s a win-win situation, you’d assume. My colleague has recently brought home a new kitten – so I gush over my own cat a little bit and ask her if there’s anything her new kitten is afraid of. Of course it’s afraid of stuff, it’s a cat. So we’re talking, and actually, I’m rather pleased with how the conversation is going. I feel like I’ve got a bit of control over the situation. Now it turns out that she had another cat before this one, and it lived to the ripe old age of 19. This is where my brain seemed to stutter, because I started to cease full understanding of the conversation. This happens quite regularly, at least for me. I miss a word or two and then the conversation has steamed on ahead without me and I fight to play catch up for the rest of the talk.

It’s ok, you’ve got this. And if all else fails, just smile and nod, right?

The answer is no. don’t do that.

So she’s talking about her previous cat still, and my brain seems to try to put some pieces together by itself. We were just talking about what our cats were scared of, so you’re probably still on the same subject, keep going. I hear her say the word ‘klompen’ and then she carries on merrily talking. Klompen are clogs, so… her previous cat was scared of clogs! I laugh, out loud, thinking hey that’s kind of funny that a cat is scared of clogs! But her face suddenly freezes and her eyes narrow just ever so slightly. Now, anxiety brain has kicked in, and I struggle to replay the last sentence in my head, wondering at the same time, how I could have possibly offended her. As I’m playing catch up (whilst, by the way, she’s still talking away. And, by now I’m behind and still focused on one particular sentence. How will I ever catch up?) I seem to stumble over the word ‘overleden’. She definitely said ‘overleden’. Was her cat in fact, killed by a pair of clogs?

I still don’t know. I didn’t really feel like pushing the conversation too much further, given the fact that I just laughed in this poor girls face. I simply apologised – profusely, and told her how slow I was at in-head translation sometimes. She took my apology and carried on talking, but by now I was in full panic mode, and actually, the rest of the lunch is a shamed blur. Still, I think I made a friend.

My second fuck up, was actually in the classroom, with a child. Now, back in England, I never made kids cry. I was the sort of teacher you could come and spill your problems to. I didn’t run a strict classroom. I was the fun one, alright? I don’t plan to change. I’m here to guide kids, not turn them into robots. Anyway – these kids still know me from last year. I was the real English lady with the funny accent then, and I think that’s probably going to be my name forever in their eyes.

So I’m taking my first group of kids and we’re doing a nice, easy hour of ‘what did you do in the summer’. These kids are good. They’re really enthusiastic, and they want to speak English, so I’m going with the flow and we’re talking about all the things we’ve been up to over the summer holidays. It’s literally great. By the end of the hour, I ask each person to give me one sentence, using simple past tense. Again, it’s going great. 13 out of 14 kids have told me, with precision and accuracy, what they’ve been up to.

Number 14 doesn’t look so confident.

I ask her again – can you give me just one sentence about what you did over summer? She shakes her head, and smiles nervously. Now, I’m no monster, but I know that sometimes, in the classroom, some pupils need a bit of a push. So I push. Just one sentence, I’ll help you to start it off. This summer I… She repeats the sentence slowly, stumbling over her words. Great start! I tell her and beckon her to continue. This…summer…I…went…to… her hands are by her face, and I see the crumpling eyes and mouth. Oh God, what am I doing? Full in-head panic mode ensues, and I’m screaming internally, because this has never happened to me before and actually, I have never had to comfort a weeping Dutch person before, so my language skills don’t quite reach that far. Luckily, I’m saved by the literal bell, and the rest of the class pack away their belongings and skiddadle sharpish, leaving myself, the poor girl I’ve just harassed for an English sentence and her friend, who is comforting her and looking at me side-eyed every so often. I comfort the girl, and her friend tells me that she didn’t like the fact that people were looking at her whilst she was trying to speak. I totally get it; being insecure in a foreign language and contending with 30 eyeballs is nerve-wracking. All I can do is promise her that we have plenty of time to practice and that actually she did a wonderful job throughout the whole lesson. She seems unconvinced, but desperate to leave, so I bid her farewell until next week. Poor kid will probably hate every single lesson coming, but I promise to persevere with her, and to never make her cry again.

So, there you have it. That’s how you offend two people in two days. But that’s how we learn.




Finding a job in a whole new world

When I resigned from my post as an English teacher last August, I had no idea how long it would take for me to actually find work in my career field once I moved away. As I sit here now, at the end of August, I can tell you that it took me almost precisely a year to find something that kind-of-remotely-resembled my job back in Blighty. You see, there aren’t a lot of international schools up here in the north of the Netherlands, and, as you’d expect, not speaking the language fluently has really held me back. I mean, I tried. I applied for over fifty English teacher posts, foolishly thinking that the fact that I was a native speaker would set me apart from the rest, and give me a chance, even though, when I think back, I would have probably sat down and cried in front of an interview panel if they had asked me to show them my Dutch skills.

So there I was, unable to get a job and thus began my first stint in unemployment since I was fifteen years old. This was a time of mixed emotions for me. I felt trapped; unable to earn my own money whilst in a new place, and that was scary. The other side of me thought: why not just enjoy this time? After all, it’s probably never going to happen again. As someone who struggles with anxiety every so often, I often fell towards the former, lamenting the fact that I wasn’t able to earn my keep and living on my final savings. Luckily for me, I have a partner who was there for me every step of the way and picked me up whenever I felt like this.

Another really lucky outcome that fell at my feet was that the people around me knew teachers, and these teachers were actually enthusiastic about having a native speaker in the classroom. That’s when I began taking on vrijwillagerswerk – known to us Brits as volunteering. Within a few weeks I had a short placement in a school where I could sit and watch classes taking place and speak a little English with the children. Although I didn’t have an overly active role, I was back in the classroom. I felt a little like I was back on my first week of teacher training: owl eyed and nervous about everything around me. Back then the kids were scary; they spoke gibberish and knew that I was a new face with little experience or control – and now that feeling was back because this time, they were literally speaking gibberish to me, and I definitely had no experience or control. I didn’t realise that you could literally regress in teaching practice and experience.

Although it was indeed scary, it was also incredibly liberating to sit and watch other professionals do their thing in a new country with a new environment and new rules. And also, the kids were really intrigued by my presence. Back then, my grasp on the Dutch language was pitiful, but I did understand the kids when they asked their teacher: “Spreekt ze Nederlands?”. They wanted to know about me. Whether or not I could speak their language. They probably wanted to know how well I could understand them when they undoubtedly had things to say about me, but I guess it’s sweet that they wouldn’t want to offend me point blank. After that it took a few days, but by the end of my first week, they were asking to sit with me and talk to me in English. Now it was my turn to feel like a child. To feel as though I was special because everybody wanted to talk to me. It’s a pretty good feeling actually. They wanted to know about me and they wanted to teach me Dutch and hear my terrible pronunciation. I kind of just wanted to be a student again.

After my stint at this school ended (we went on a little traveling bender to New Zealand), I felt a little more optimistic about how my career could progress one day, once I’d mastered the language. I started searching for other schools who thought it might be kinda cool to have a teacher-cum-student-cum-spectacle for the kids to learn a bit of English with. Turns out, one of my other half’s best mate’s sister is an English teacher over here. And she worked close by. It’s always who you know, isn’t it… Again, the same enthusiasm that I’d never felt towards me before was there, and I was invited in, and this time I was given a little more freedom with the kids. By this time, my Dutch had significantly improved, and I was actually able to introduce myself to multiple classes in my new found language. Honestly, if you ever want to feel like some sort of goddess or theatre star, pick up a new language and just stand somewhere and speak it. I guarantee there’ll be more mouths open and excited applause than you’ll ever receive again. I mean, it’s kind of a shame that English people provoke that kind of response because we’ve actually bothered to learn a language other than our own, but it’s the best feeling ever. In any case, I was welcomed so hard, I felt like I was a part of this team. This time, I was allowed to take small groups of children off and do fluency and pronunciation work, as well as help them complete written tasks in their work books. I finally felt like I had a purpose, and I loved every minute with the kids and teachers there.

As summer approached, the opportunity for some paid work was brought up. I almost fell off my chair. I wasn’t offered a teaching role, but rather, the role of instructor, whose job was to work closely with the class teacher whilst taking small groups off to do fluency and pronunciation practice. It was literally what I’d been doing for the previous three months, and now they wanted to give me real money for it. I had done it! I had cracked the seemingly impossible task of working within education. I had one foot on the career ladder. I’d started again.

So as I sit here, in this, my last week of unemployment, I’m want to pass on a piece of advice. Never give up. When you think you’re at the bottom. You can get back up on that horse. It takes time and it takes work, (and sometimes you have to work for free), but you will get there. Just keep going.

Watch your language

Back in England I was a teacher. An English literature teacher no less. I know: very original. Nothing quite got me going like marking 30 essays per night, and spending my free periods talking to parents whose child definitely-could-not-have-slapped-him-around-the-face-with-the-whiteboard-marker-because-he’s-just-an-angel-at-home. Ok ok, I hear ya now you’ve repeated yourself 18 times. No, I’m being too harsh. I loved being a teacher. I loved the hours I got to spend laughing and joking with the kids whilst simultaneously forcing them to read poetry they really weren’t into. I really did.

Since moving a few months ago, I’ve been volunteering in Dutch schools, to give my CV a boost and to have a nosey at what my future holds once I’ve finally mastered the language. I love it just as much as I loved it in England. But here’s the catch. I’m now a modern foreign language teacher instead of a literature teacher. Whaaaaaat. For now, unearthing the real desires of the author have been moved aside and my main task is to help the kids with fluency, pronunciation and the weird bits of English that nobody really understands.

Now, it’s been quite a big change, but it’s only one of the hurdles I’ve had to face. For one, I have to get used to everyone wearing whatever the hell they want at school. Forget your kids in cute blazers and ties and the teachers dressing like they run a failing business; the girls are in short shorts, the boys wear steel toe capped boots and the teachers are running around in dresses and flip flops. It’s ‘chill’ to say the least. I do still have at least two moments of panic in a morning when I roll up in my jeans and bright fuchsia Adidas and wonder if I’ll be mistaken for the weird exchange student again. These guys just don’t care though, and I respect it and even enjoy it now I’m used to it.

Again, this turns out not to be the greatest challenge to my soft, censored English ears. No. It’s the swearing. From everyone. Teachers and kids. They don’t give a shit. And they’re going to tell you about it whether you’re ready or not. I mean, I’m completely flabbergasted. The UK censors every hint of an impolite curse word on the radio… on tv… in school… in the work place. If someone swears on the street you sort of heave your disgustedly offended face up without even realising. If someone gives you the middle finger in a moment of severe road rage, you sob silently on your driveway the instant you arrive home. It’s the way we do it, right? So why do these kids tell each other to ‘go f*ck yourself’, or screech ‘that’s f*cking sh*t man’ when their poor exam grades are returned? Swearing here is such common practice that it sort of defeats the point of swearing. It’s not really hurled as an insult, but more of an exaggeration and a play with language. They enjoy it, and I’m totally here for that now. Don’t get me wrong, the first time the teacher decided to call her class a ‘bunch of little sh*ts’, my eyeballs nearly popped out of my head. The first time the girl behind me called her tardy friend a ‘f*cking b*tch’, my jaw hit the desk like I’d just been physically assaulted. But the offensive attitude isn’t there. It’s light and it’s humorous. And it’s everywhere. Radio stations play uncensored songs and live TV certainly has a no holds barred approach. Everybody swears here. Get used to it.

I’m not being funny, but I actually really like it. I swear a lot. At almost anything, so it’s nice to be able to do that openly (although I’ve still not let loose in the classroom just yet). And you know something? It’s lovely not having to give a kid detention when he tells me that my ‘sh*te assignment can f*ck off’.


You should be speaking Dutch with your boyfriend.

One of the most daunting things to consider when moving abroad is, for most of us, the fact that you have to learn a new language. There are no ifs, buts, or maybes. You just have to.

For me, this was something that I was prepared for mentally, but obviously, not so much physically. Since my man and I’s first meet-up a year previous, I had bought the books, downloaded the apps, and installed all the CDs that were going to give me a bit of a head start. Of course, at first, I had no idea that the future would bring me here, but I was desperate to understand a bit more about my boyfriend. It felt good to be able to say hello (ok, so there’s not so much difference there) and ask how he was (when I found my guts). It felt good to try, and hey, who doesn’t want to at least try to be bilingual.

Now, a few months in, I am enrolled in Dutch classes, where I go 3 times a week for 3 hours per lesson, I help teach children in a local school, and, almost exclusively talk to my boyfriend’s parents in Dutch.

Now, here’s the thing. My boyfriend and I spend our days talking English to each other. And I mean 99.5% of the time. The only time that we don’t speak English is when we are out in the shops, or basically ‘around other Dutch people who will hear me speak English and hate me’.

Almost every day, I am told that I should be speaking Dutch with my boyfriend. And, ok, I see your point:

  • He’s from around here; that’s quite handy when trying to learn the language.
  • Out of everyone I know, I’m around him most of the time.

But actually, how would we really function if we only spoke Dutch to one another? Firstly, for him it’s like talking to a child. And that, my friends, is no way to build a romance. Sometimes he has to repeat the same sentence three times before I have heard and translated all of the words. Then I have to translate my own response into another language and not cock it up. And if I haven’t cocked it up, I’m left wondering if he will understand my dodgy accent spewing out these foreign words?

Secondly, I have questions. Lots of them. All the time. I’m pretty curious as to why there are two different words for the, or why we say numbers the wrong way round, or why I’m shoving all of my extra verbs to the end of the sentence. Usually, he doesn’t have an answer for me, apart from ‘it just is’, or ‘I’m not sure, really’, which is definitely not an insult to him – how many of us know the grammatical ins and outs of the language we’ve been programmed to use our whole life… it just is the way it is, right?

So, we’re going to carry on speaking mostly English, with a spattering of Dutch sentences I’ve repeated a few hundred times and learnt by heart such as “Ik heb geen idee” (I have no idea), or “Ik weet het niet” (I don’t know). And with that, I think we’ll be ok.