by Genoveva Geppaart
You might think that in order to experience other cultures and languages, you have to live in another country. Usually this is true, but sometimes you can even experience a different culture or language in your home country. The following anecdotes show this.
I never lived abroad but via ACCESS I get in touch with internationals/expats. One day in 2006 /2007 I came into the office and greeted my colleagues. ACCESS is an independent not-for-profit organization serving internationals to successfully settle in the Netherlands. Both my manager and several colleagues hugged me as a hello. I was surprised, but didn't mind. It is something we wouldn't do in the Netherlands. My manager was from Colombia and most colleagues from my department came from either southern Europe or from non-EU countries. Now it is common when I meet expat friends that we hug each other. I was used to hug only family and sometimes a very good friend.
I live in an almshouse. An almshouse is group of small houses built around a common courtyard. It was founded several centuries ago by a rich person to offer free housing to poor older women. Nowadays it is often also open to other people (usually only singles and sometimes only women) and you have to pay rent. When I was new in ‘my’ almshouse (in 1989) there were many older ladies living there as the landlord just started offering the houses to younger people as well. I often heard them talking about the asbak and the asman. I didn't have any idea what they meant. An asbak (ashtray) is something on the table where people put their cigarette ashes, but it was clear they didn't mean that. And I never heard about an asman. Several years later, I learned that the asbak was the vuilnisbak (dustbin) we have outside and the asman was the vuilnisman (waste collector) who picks up the bags with waste. The names asbak and asman dated from the past when waste was burned to ashes.
Brabants' dialect or when speed means homesick, the curtains are made of glass and Dutch is not Dutch...
- My Mum grew up in Brabant, but never learned the dialect. At home she was used to speaking standard Dutch. When she had finished secondary school, she went to a boarding school to become a teacher (in the late 1940s). This was not only a boarding school for the study to become a teacher but also for children who did secondary school. The youngest of these children (usually about 12 years) often had 'vaart’. My Mum didn't have any idea what that was. She knew 'vaart' as speed or as a canal (nowadays the Dutch hardly use ‘vaart’ for canal any more). After a while she discovered that 'vaart' was dialect for homesick.
- An aunt of mine speaks Brabants (although she tries to speak standard Dutch with me). Sometimes I must 'translate' some words for myself into standard Dutch, e.g. she calls vitrage (net curtains) 'glasgordijnen '. Very descriptive, but you need to know what she means.
- When I was 4 ½ years old, we moved from a village near Zwolle in the northeast of the Netherlands to a village near Breda (in the south). After my first morning in kindergarten, I came home and said to my Mum that I could understand the teacher when the door was open but I couldn't understand her when the door was closed. My Mum was surprised and tried to figure out what the reason could be, but she couldn't find any. Then she went to the head teacher and asked her what the reason could be. Oh, said the head teacher, when the door is open the parents are around and then she speaks standard Dutch. When she is alone with the children, the door is closed, she speaks dialect (keep in mind it was in 1966). The teacher told a girl to sit next to me and ‘translate’. After some time I could understand most of the things the teacher said.
Note: Nowadays this would probably not be possible as all teachers have to pay attention to children’s Dutch level and if necessary take action to improve their Dutch (even from 4-6 years old. What was once kindergarten is part of primary school nowadays). But things were different in those days.
- My Mum was a teacher at primary school. One day after school she heard a lot of noise in the classroom of a colleague. There an angry Moroccan mother was beating Mum's colleague. Mum knew this woman didn't understand Dutch but she understood French. My Mum said "va t'en” (meaning: go away ). The Moroccan mother rushed away. My Mum's colleague asked "Wat moest ze aonvatten? " She understood "vat aon " which is dialect for "pak aan " (take this). In standard Dutch you would say : "Wat moest ze aanpakken?” My Mum explained it to her colleague. When she came home and told it to my Dad and me, we couldn't stop laughing. Never thought French was so similar as Brabants dialect ….
English and Dutch: so similar, but so different...
An international friend of mine once wrote me that she finds it difficult not to take coke. My first thought was did she really mean cocaine? Or did she mean cola? As I know her, I expected she meant cola. The reason I asked myself this question, is that in Dutch coke is short for cocaine. If the Dutch mean Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola they use the word cola. Recently, I received an email from a native English speaker, in which the word coke was used as well. Again, I had to realize she meant cola and not cocaine.
About the Author
Genoveva Geppaart is native Dutch. She was born in a village near Zwolle. At the age of four, she moved to a village near Breda, where she spent the rest of her childhood. She studied library and information science in Tilburg and The Hague.
For many years she worked at KPN, a major Dutch telecommunications provider and former monopolist, as information researcher. She also wrote many reports based on desk research. Since summer 2005 she works with ACCESS, an independent not-for-profit organization serving internationals to successfully settle in the Netherlands. Her activities here are also focused on information research and writing.
Genoveva is interested in many subjects, but languages, history and other cultures are her favourites.
Find other stories of the series "What you wish you would have known earlier..." here.