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Busted!

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Learning to speak Dutch is a bitch.


First of all, you have to get over the fact that you’re spending all that time and energy learning the ugliest sounding language on the planet. While languages like French and Italian make you sound Euro-chic and sophisticated, Dutch is a hot, guttural mess. A virtual smorgasbord of growly, raspy, harsh sounds, all made in the back of your throat or by twisting your lips and tongue into impossible positions.


As if the pronunciation weren’t bad enough, there’s also the complex grammar. There are ‘de’ words and ‘het’ words and confusion around the use of ‘d’ and ‘t’ and the word ‘er’ that you can seemingly just stick at random in the middle of a sentence. There are words that mean the exact same thing but influence the placement of the rest of the words in the sentence (please don’t make me explain the ever perplexing want vs. omdat). And to top it off, virtually no Dutch person can justify any of it, except with an, “I dunno, that’s just the way you say it.”


People always ask me how I learned to speak Dutch like a native, and my answer is always the same: I lived there for twelve years. It was simply a sink-or-swim situation. I lived it, breathed it, and CURSED it every single day; I couldn’t have learned it any other way. Sure, at first I sank like a big, fat rock, but then finally one day, I floated to the top.


And even though it’s not a particularly useful language—only about 22 million people on the entire face of the earth speak it—I’m glad that I did. Because speaking Dutch? Is like having your very own, private language as soon as you cross the border.


Unless you’re in Belgium. Or the Netherlands Antilles. Or maybe South Africa. But pretty much everywhere else: secret language. Which is really handy when you’re like the Dutchman and me and enjoy making snarky comments about the adult man in his pajamas at Target, or the enormous woman at the party holding a plate of food she doesn’t need, or the family of four in full Amish garb coming towards you in an Atlanta parking lot.


“Exactly which fashion magazine advertises her outfit?” the Dutchman asked me in his native tongue.


“Not the ones I subscribe to,” I answered him in Dutch. “And just what look do you think she was going for? Grandma? Nursing home? Wallpaper? I mean seriously, I’m perplexed.”


And then I was shocked and humiliated when her husband said to us, IN DUTCH, “Excuse me. Do you know the way to the Consulate?”


So busted.


You would think we would have learned our lesson that afternoon, but you would be wrong. Busted again at the Happy Sumo (one long, uncomfortable meal at a hibachi table full of Belgians), and in an elevator in New York City (one long, uncomfortable ride to the rooftop bar), and waiting for a bathroom in Atlanta (one long, uncomfortable … are you sensing a trend here?).


And even worse: once you learn this secret language, you forget that in the Netherlands, people can actually understand every single word you say. Of course I learned this the hard way—by talking smack about the guy next to me at the luggage carousel at the Amsterdam airport, though, in my defense, he was seriously scraggly and blowing smoke right at my head. The man looked at me like I was mentally handicapped. And I might have been, so seriously jetlagged was I at that particular moment.


But even though the Dutchman and I have been busted more times that I can count, we don’t plan to stop. Having a secret language, even when it’s not really “secret” per se, is just too darn fun.


My advice to you? Learn Dutch.


Snarky Dutch.


Then we’ll be speaking the same language.

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