Old World Bliss or Bonkers?! Part 1


More than 25 years ago I was running through LAX to catch my connecting flight, with two large suitcases slowing down my speed. An airline official offered to take them off me and recheck them after I had dragged them through customs.

“Whoa these are heavy!” He exclaimed. “What’s in here?”

“My life,” I answered.

I was emigrating to the US, burning bridges and not wanting to look back. The US, American literature, an American husband had stolen my heart— I was young, optimistic and giddy with the LA sunlight trying to break through the fog of jetlag.

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And so I built a life in California, with a husband and two kids. With it came two dogs, a storybook house in the East Bay, rosemary bushes, lemon trees, a jacuzzi and lots of possessions that we are now shedding because we are moving back to Europe as Trump exiles. The US is becoming an authoritarian state and, having grown up with parents who were old enough to experience the deleterious effects of fascism, I know a red flag when I see one, and this one is chilling and utterly disturbing. And well, if you’re not bothered by it, you’re clearly not paying attention.

Also, the Bay Area, that Mecca of techies and startups, is now one of the most expensive places to live and since Jon was burning out badly from having worked in tech for most of his career, I suggested we downsize, ship out and drop out. Embracing my fate as a digital nomad, we can live comfortably on my salary in a place like Portugal, and well, life is too short, the planet is gasping for air due to plastic and pollution, and quite frankly, I don’t understand why there aren’t more of us wanting to carpe that fucking diem

Responses from friends were mixed. There’s always American enthusiasm for ventures like these but the raised eyebrow and the occasional silence told us that we were in a minority. Some of them wouldn’t believe us until I actually posted pictures of us dismantling our house and paring down our possessions to the size of two small pods. “So you’re really doing this?” Or “We had no idea you were going to move so soon…” were mixed with “I would do it in a heartbeat but my parents are still alive, and then there are the kids…” We think possessions tie us down, but so do people and relationships.

That said, with more than 20 years of stuff, just getting rid of it was no small feat. Things are just things, but some things are charged with memories and getting rid of items seems both callous and indifferent. Emptying a house is emptying your life of memories, and, always having been a nostalgia nerd, the entire process became emotionally draining. Every piece that goes through your hands opens a window onto a past that you have to give a place before tossing it on the pile of the Great Forgetting.

And then there was Teddy, our 14-year-old dachshund who had practically grown up with the kids and was a fixture of the house and garden. He died just before we put the house on the market. Walking down the kitchen steps, his back and rear legs gave out like jello. I took him to an animal hospital where they suggested euthanasia, so I took him home for one more night and fine Fall day to give him another 24 hours of bliss in the yard.

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I made him a bed on the lounger outside and fed him paté and pasta and sent the kids tons of pictures. At 4 PM we took him to our vet for the last rites. I was crying in the car, and he was licking away my tears. He died in our arms, a princely fellow with a grey snout and eyes that went from soulful to a glassy stare in a New York minute.

Teddy’s death was a blessing in disguise because with him gone, the empty house (and nest) seemed to have been robbed of its soul and reason for being. But in the weeks thereafter, I still heard the clicking of Teddy’s nails on our hardwood floors. He was still with us. The sounds diminished, but when the house was finally empty and I heard my own footsteps echoing as I walked one more time through the house and garden, Teddy was there again, right by my side, surveying the grounds.

“Teddy, sweet Teddy, you need to go. Be with your mommy,” I said out loud. The guy who was hauling away stuff and with whom we had become somewhat intimate (because if you think that going through your stuff is personal, wait until someone else does it…) popped his head around the corner and said: “You OK?” I merely nodded, for how do you explain to someone that you’re telling your dead dog to let go?!

We’re temporary refugees of Tahoe now where we are renting for a few months before we remigrate, and after the emotionally and physically draining part of emptying the house, I felt a strange sense of joy at the first sight of snow and the lake, as we were driving to our rental for the first time. It was a kind of died-and-gone-to-heaven feeling. I had a similar moment when our beds got hauled away and we had to book a hotel for a night in a town that has our old familiar zip code but where we no longer have a house or a home. I texted a friend: “We’re staying at a hotel tonight as our beds got hauled away. It sounds really shabby, but it is strangely liberating.”

Less is more, and the entire process has forced us to think in terms of experiences and living now. When you build a career, it’s all status symbols and possessions but when you’ve reached the end of a career, the status symbols and possessions have lost their magic, meaning and transformative power.

Now it’s just us and being on the road, meeting new people, gaining new experiences, tasting different foods, learning new languages and painting and writing en plein air instead of working over time in a cubicle with overhead lights that are not unlike prison lights. We all create our own prisons and we think we have to, to pay the bills and the rent/mortgage, but at the end of the day, it enslaves us, and crushes our soul and self. Was it Sheryl Crow who sang It’s not having what you want but wanting what you’ve got? That’s right. Soak up the sun, before it soaks you up. Live now, love generously and savor every moment. Life is too short.

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Chapter Twelve of #TeachingDutch: Lost Soul


imagesThis will be my last chapter for this series. I didn’t include all the original chapters, for some got into the nitty-gritty of #TeachingDutch and I wanted to keep it entertaining.

After teaching at UC Berkeley for ten years, I moved onto greener pastures and I am now to face another big change and challenge, i.e. sell our house and move back to Europe. Because a lot needs to happen between now and when we put the house on the market, I will blog less often but hope to write in the near future about what it means to move back to Europe after 20+ years in America.

So follow me by subscribing to this blog and you’ll never miss a beat!

Also, in the next two months or so, I hope to get my Henry Miller manuscript ready, so I can pitch it to some publishers. And then there is work, my clients. A busy time. But busy is good– it stops the mind from atrophying. 

Here is the final chapter of #Teaching Dutch

Chapter Twelve: Lost Soul

Charles, a forty-year-old man with an olive-tinted skin and piercing blue eyes was not on my list of registered students when I arrived for my advanced class, Dutch 125, on the first day of class. Registration list irregularities happen at the beginning of the semester, and these wrinkles get smoothed out as soon as the semester takes shape.

However, when I started doing my ice breakers, it seemed Charles was a little out of place, or maybe just awkward. His Dutch was very rusty and he stammered considerably. Maybe he was nervous, and to relax him, I switched to English momentarily.

“So what is your last name?”

“Brown, but you can ca-ca-ca-call me Charlie Brown.”

And my name is Snoopy, I wanted to crack but I shut up, and added his name dutifully to my list.

In Dutch, I tried to ascertain how much Dutch he had spoken in the past. Charlie started perspiring as if he were questioned by the CIA. I guess Dutch sometimes has that effect on people. He spoke with saliva hitting the table in front of him. The collar of his white shirt had seen whiter days and his woolen blazer had dirty sleeves and pills you could knit a whole sweater with. I started wondering whether he was homeless.

He then stammered that he had lived in Amsterdam for awhile.

“And I need to go back to the h- h- h-h…”

I was filling in, in my mind: Hookers? Hash? Houses along the Herengracht? Or the Hilton Hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their famous presser in bed sheets, even though they had enough dough by then to buy some pj’s?

The other students moved in their seats uncomfortably, so I decided to break through the stammering and asked him about his studies. This was another challenging question but eventually, it became clear that he was a PhD student in Linguistics. He had taken off a semester and was now back in school. Was this code for a nervous breakdown? The life of doctoral students can be extremely stressful, so this was all very plausible.

But as time went by, Charles’s name would not appear on my list and his behavior inside and outside the classroom became more suspect. He was seen wandering our hallways (the floor of the German Department) night and day and one of the staff thought he might be sleeping in the graduate lounge. In class, there were further red flags. In the middle of almost every session, he would announce with a painful expression on his face (but in perfect Dutch): 

     “Ik moet poepen!”

This translates into “I have to shit” and clearly, this is not the polite way in the Netherlands to tell your audience you need to do a number 2. To underline the urgency of this matter, Charlie would run from the room and cover his ass with one hand, as if one’s hand can ever undo the damage of any colon blow…

During one of Charlie’s poop breaks, I turned to the students and said: 

“Listen, I am not sure Charlie belongs in this class…”

Understanding glances from the students. In fact, they seemed relieved.

 “To make a long story short…” I continued, “I don’t feel comfortable about him, so if he does anything suspicious or strange inside or outside the classroom, let me know.” 

That same day Charlie submitted his first essay in Dutch. It was written in a strange sort of Dutch and English. It was handwritten and crumpled– as if it had been tossed but then fished out of the trashcan because it was the best version after all.

Aside from its poor Dutch, the essay told the story of his mother being out of town and he was alone in his room when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the knock came from drug dealers, and rather than calling 911, Charlie opened the door and got the poep kicked out of him. He said in the essay that he didn’t know these “gentlemen” and was pretty upset about what he called a case of mistaken identity.

Right…

That same evening, I received three emails from three different students. They had all been approached separately by Charlie. He had told them that his mother was out of town (so at least that story added up) and he needed money to buy coffee at Starbuck’s. The first student said he asked for $10, the next reported he wanted $20 and the third student said Charlie wanted $30. My hunch was that Charlie didn’t need Starbuck’s but needed a completely different fix, and he used my students to do some serious panhandling. A fourth e-mail came in. Sure enough: $40.

The next morning, I called the campus police. I would have to remove Charlie Brown from my classroom that morning and I needed back-up. Within ten minutes, a cop showed up with a golden badge on his shirt pocket and a fat revolver on his hip. After hearing my story, the cop said he would accompany me to my classroom so I could remove Charlie. Frankly, I don’t get horny for certain uniforms (like some women do) but it was slightly thrilling to walk through Berkeley’s Foreign Languages building with a cop by my side. Students noticed, stared and moved out of the way. I would love to try such a uniform myself one day…

In the classroom, Charlie was already at his seat, as per usual with a very straight back and his book in front of him. The cop stood off to the side, in the hallway, and nodded. It was my cue to step into the room and tell Charlie he needed to go.

“Charlie,” I said, going straight for the kill: “There have been a number of incidents and you have violated my and the students’ trust. You need to leave, and not come back.” 

Charlie’s eyes lit up with an intensity that scared me. He started stammering with a fury I hadn’t seen before. And he started perspiring so heavily that it seemed as if someone had turned on the ceiling sprinklers. 

 “W-w-w-w-what did I do?!” This question needed to be answered concretely and directly.    

 “First of all, you’re still not registered for this class and it’s the third week of the semester. Secondly, no one at the Linguistics Department knows any Charlie Brown, besides the obvious character created by Charles Schulz. Thirdly, you’ve asked your fellow students for money…” He interrupted me. There was a Fourthly: his Dutch sucked and he really didn’t qualify for the level of Dutch 125.  

“But I had to borrow some m-m-money for coffee! Is that against the law?” A student walked in and Charlie now became fixated on the student. He pointed at the student, saliva flying everywhere. The student blushed.     

“Liar!” he harassed the student, “I told you not to tell her!!!”

The cop who was still hiding in the hallway, understood things were heating up so he emerged in the door opening. His hands rested on his revolver belt. It felt like a goddam movie. Charlie glanced at the cop, but still seemed to be protesting. I talked to him calmly, advising him to leave but the cop had some svelte body language that caught everyone’s eye: He was swaying his hips from side to side, hands near his revolver as if the entire classroom had turned into a scene from a Spaghetti Western.

Then the officer broke the suspense… and stepped into the classroom.

“Sir!” He said. “Can I talk to you for a sec?” Charlie got up reluctantly, pale from anger and frustration. As he walked out, he shamed us all, projecting his own madness onto us:

“You are all cr-cr-cr…”

“CRAZY CHICKEN SHITS!!!” He yelled, as if he were Charles Manson’s little brother.

The cop gentle tugged Charlie’s arm and led him out. We could still hear him scream when I was writing some things on the blackboard. Charlie’s screaming had stopped. The cop peeked in and motioned me to come outside.

“I don’t quite trust him,” the officer said, “and I almost arrested him. If you see him again or he bothers you or your students, please let us know, coz we have his info.”

On my walk to BART to take the train home that afternoon, I looked over my shoulder, expecting Charlie to come for me, from behind a eucalyptus tree, with a knife, a rope, a gun or baseball bat.

What a joke.

One day I had a homeless man in my office and the next I had one in one of my classes.

What was I doing at Berkeley, teaching a language that no one speaks and attracting weirdos– what kind of social work was that?

It was time to move on.

And so I did.

I miss the teaching and the students dearly but I had to leave because of this.

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Chapter Eleven of #TeachingDutch: Saved by Queen Beatrix


imagesOf course poverty isn’t something to be ashamed of, but it is hard to look at.

~ Remco Campert

The city of Berkeley and San Francisco are more tolerant of the homeless than the surrounding communities but that also means you can find them in greater numbers in these cities. Having grown up in the Netherlands, where poverty and homelessness exist, too, we know that there are government services to help these wayward souls, so it’s less to feel guilty about.

In America, churches feed meals to the homeless and rather than giving people money, everyone knows that it’s better to help with meals than sustain possible drug or drinking habits, although, clearly, anyone would feel tempted to hit the bottle or shoot up, if only to forget about the fact that you haven’t showered in a while and are sleeping under a bridge in a cardboard box. America, the Beautiful.

Because homelessness and hunger continue to grow in the state that has one of the biggest economies and wealthiest people in the world, the Berkeley Campus is like a Homeless Extension. Homeless people will enter the campus buildings to use bathrooms, and sometimes you find them sleeping in places where they are not supposed to come.

At night, you can call the campus police that has a special escort service, i.e. someone will come with you and walk you to your car or public transit if you don’t feel comfortable braving the night alone. One of my students worked for this service, and one night, she was tapped on the shoulder by a bearded smelly guy who said: “Hey! Can you escort me to my bush?”

Most of the homeless keep to themselves, and while Americans will tell you to ignore them, doing so is denying them their humanity. If they talk to me, I don’t avert my glance, but I answer politely and smile, without inviting them, or engaging them in further conversations about Derrida or Diderot.

Yet there are also moments where you sense danger in the guise of that prickly feeling in your neck when the hairs in your neck start to tingle and tell you to RUN.

I had one of those moments one semester when I was in my office early. In compliance with campus policy, my door was wide open. I was working on my computer, so I was startled when someone had walked into my office and announced himself.

Or rather, his unwashed scent preceded his presence. He was a big guy and he was hovering over my desk, which was the only obstruction and protection between me and him. I looked at him, without staring but saw he was missing most of his teeth. His clothes were dirty and his skin had that weatherized look (leather) of sleeping in the elements. He had a grey stubble and when he spoke, I smelled a whiff of alcohol.

“Good morning,” I said, as friendly as I could.

“So…” he said, doing away with niceties. “So…” he said again, specks of saliva landing on my desk. He pointed at a poster of the Netherlands that was on the wall: beach, dunes, water and more water. Holland! The poster also said in orange letters.

“Is… Holland… a good place for people like me?”

“Yes,” I answered — after all, I had to win him over if I wanted to play it safe. “Maybe even better than this country…”

In the meantime, I thought up scenarios of what I should do if this gentleman started acting funny.

“Oh,” he said, with a burp that smelled of vomit.

Silence.

He tried to make eye contact, but the vomit smell made me avert my eyes, back to the computer. Maybe if I pretended to be busy, he would just take off. I opened the drawer of my desk nonchalantly, looking for my scissors, the one with the sharp pointy edges, which, if need be, I could use as a weapon. I had to be prepared.

“Do you know my mother?” He asked. I found this random question rather disarming and almost comical.

“Honey, I don’t know your mother,” and I should have stopped there but at the introduction of this fuzzy mommy element, I continued: “Does she live here… do you live in Berkeley?”

That was stupid, because now I had invited him to elaborate, and out came some verbal diarrhea which I couldn’t follow because I don’t speak diarrhea. I merely nodded like those cold tv-psychiatrists who don’t speak or ask questions but charge by the minute. I had to make this as non-committal as I could.

This clearly disappointed him, so he stepped closer to the desk, breathing heavily. He pointed at my textbook and put his dirty paw possessively on the book. Great, I thought, one more thing to disinfect before I go to class.

He growled: “Can I see this?”

“Go ahead,” I said, as I looked how he put the book at an angle and scratched his crotch with it.

I didn’t want him to see it or scratch his crotch with it, but what was I to do? To sway him from abusing this particular book any further, I tried to tell him that it was written in Dutch, but he was somewhere else entirely mentally, so I looked again at my computer screen to see if I could ping anyone on our floor.

He was now leafing through the book as if it contained a secret that could solve all his problems, but then he got frustrated and threw the book back aggressively with the words:

“I can’t read this shit.”

“I told you so,” I almost said, but I shut my trap because this was not the moment to antagonize him with some wise-ass crack. He then went to my bookcase and looking at the bindings, he threw his head back and started to gargle with the snot and trapped flies that were lingering in the back of his throat. For a split second, I was ready to dive under my desk because what if he decided to spit everything out, in my direction?

Apparently, there is a God, because he swallowed the sewage in the back of his throat and pulled out another textbook from my shelf. I acted as if this were the public library, so I ignored him, which made him yell at me:

“Hey lady! Can I have this book?”

At least he asked, you could say.

It was no secret that homeless people used newspapers and cardboard boxes for housing and bedding, but a friend of mine who worked in a bookstore also told me that they would steal books from her store, not to read necessarily but to tear out pages and use them as insulation in their clothing, against the cold.

I hesitated for a moment, and decided I had to act resolutely but friendly. I didn’t want him to take that book, but I needed to find a solution to get his smelly ass out of my office.

As I stood up, my eye fell on a box of donated books of the Dutch royal family. They were mostly picture books (the royals in the Golden Carriage, the royals on the ski slopes, and since we’re a biking monarchy, the royals on their bikes as well). In other words, unusable books for my Dutch language students. I hadn’t had the heart yet to ditch those books in the dumpster because they made me think of my grandma who had these kinds of books on her coffee table. She would have killed for those books. So there they were, those books with relaxing royals, gathering dust and spider webs.

“You know what,” I said, as I walked in the direction of the box, scissors in my right hand. “I have some great picture books for you… of the Dutch royals…” I pushed a big book with our then-Queen Beatrix into his hands. He grabbed it and stared at her picture: “Nice gal…” he said, and then he muttered “Big hair!” For those of you who don’t know her, here she is:download

“Yes” I concurred. “Big hair,” I said, “So she needs big hats.” “Take her with you,” I said “Cherish her. Sleep with her, or line your pants with her. But I, I have to go now,” I lied.

“Thank you!” He said and walked into the hallway. As I was locking my door and looked at him, he was not walking in a straight line, but Beatrix was firmly locked inside his armpit.

Of all people. Beatrix. She saved the day. And she saved me from an uncertain fate. I never felt stronger about the monarchy.

I stopped by the office of our coordinator. A student with a giant bump on his head and bruise on his face walked out.

Once he was out of earshot, I asked our coordinator: “What happened to him?!”

“Strange story,” she said. “His parents don’t want him to graduate because they want him to take over his dad’s store, so they hired some scary dude who pulled him off his bike yesterday and threatened him and hit him with a pipe on his head. Such a strange story, don’t you think?”

I grabbed a chair and said: “Do you have a moment? I have a strange story for you, too…”

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My Confessional Christmas Letter


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Christmas Anno 2019

For years I have been trying to parody the smug Look what we did/where we traveled last year-Xmas letter, to show the world that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously, but this year, I have a special message I want to share with you.

I was struck by a FB post that said I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions. I related to it, because as you know, as humans, we are all deeply flawed, but we have lost touch with what it means to own up to that feeling.

In Trump’s/FOX News America, feeling or saying that you feel like a loser is taboo. We all have to say we’re the best and that we’re always winning because well, aren’t we the best? and this is all because we have the best of all Presidents in American (and world) history.

The excessive hyperbole and masking of our authenticity, warts and all, has led to a cover-up culture that is now playing out in Congress in the form of an impeachment drama.

The MO now is: If we fail, we cover it up where once, in Silicon Valley, the mantra was: Fail and fail often. The folks who obsessively cover up, live in an alternate reality which, in psych speak, is a form of delusion.

To cure all delusions, my Christmas and New Year’s message for you is that I want you to be truthful and authentic, and rather than covering up your flaws, you should give yourself the generosity to own them, because yes, only the truth will set you free.

To get you started, I’m going to own up to 6 of my mistakes and fails this past year:

SIN #1: I ate and drank too much. I want Santa to give me more brain cells but knowing Santa, all I got and will get is fat cells, but you know what? I ain’t twenty anymore, I married the love of my life, and I am going to embrace my fatness and gluttony. Body image be damned.

SIN #2: I hate too much. I was raised a Catholic but unlike Nancy Pelosi, I have done way too much hating this year. I should stop hating all those pale, patriarchal, penis people just because they put kids in cages, want to re-implant ectopic pregnancies and took away food stamps, right before Christmas. I should love them, and hate their actions, but for the rest of the year, I will do a little more hating, and then try to make a difference by knocking on doors in 2020 to get the vote out. (Disclaimer: if some revenge porn of the three stooges (Trump, Mitch and Lindsey) comes my way, I will retweet and share it as often as 45, Epstein and Prince Andrew have grabbed women by the pussy.)

SIN #3: I probably eat too much plastic. I worry about the plastic in the oceans and having become a pescatarian, I now wonder how much plastic I am really ingesting instead of fish, but I still use plastic and eat fish dammit, so something’s gotta change.

SIN #4: I spend too much time on social media and it messes with my sanity (what’s left of it), sex life (what’s left of it) and sleep (what’s left of it). I need to dump my phone in the toilet or move to a place where I go off the grid completely, to get back to self, sex and sleep.

SIN #5: I work too much and enjoy life too little, which is why we’re selling this joint and moving to Europe as soon as we’re ready.

SIN #6: I am stoopid. I bent over backwards to write a book on Henry Miller but with #MeToo, I might as well have written the memoirs of Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. Who will buy this manuscript and how many hours did I waste on that whole dog and pony show? Hours I should have dieted, loved, eaten more plants instead of fish, lived, fucked and slept, and well, you get the drift.

My antidote to all this awful truthfulness is my family, but Jon, like me, works his ass off (and I wish he worked mine off, coz he really doesn’t have a spare to go around) and Will and Caroline live in Boston and Chicago and I see way too little of them. I am not worthy, because they are as perfect as they come, and this is not hyperbole, they just are. Yes, there is a God. 

As proof that you’ve been in the confession booth with me (i.e. read this letter) I want your DM with 3 authentic truths to share with me, so we can all have a good laugh and hope for a more loving and compassionate 2020. Sending LOVE and LAUGHTER from our house to yours, HO, HO, HO.

Inez & Jon, Will and Caroline (Disclaimer number 2: Jon, Will and Caroline really don’t want to be part of this letter)

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Chapter Ten: What is Success?


imagesDe maatschappij is als een dierentuin: de apen hebben er altijd het meeste succes.

Society is like a zoo: the monkeys are always a success.

~ Paul Rodenko

Chapter Ten: What is Success?

Although Oscar Wilde once noted that people are generally envious of success, which means that they only truly sympathize with you when your life is in the gutter, this doesn’t seem to apply to America. In America, people who are in the gutter are there because they’ve earned it, and the people who have success (read: money, fame etc) have probably earned that, too. Success is coddled and loved and pampered, but failure is taboo.

To hear what Millenials had to tell me about success, I had my students in Dutch 2 write a brief essay about success, or rather, I wanted them to define what they imagined when I asked them the question: What is success?

Because students who go to UC Berkeley are mostly privileged, smart, ambitious, talented and yes, maybe even entitled, I expected to see answers involving spectacular careers and the salaries to go with it. Only one out of the eight students, however, mentioned his hope for a successful career. Interestingly, he was also the only one who avoided the word success, and instead focused on the word failure. His personal failure, he confessed, was that he had not gotten into Harvard. In other words, getting into Berkeley was defined by him as having a lack of success.

All the others wrote rather philosophically. No mention of the American Dream or that second home in Tahoe or the Maldives. Dreams were unproductive they all seemed to argue… this baffled me, especially because it came from American 18/19-year-olds, and if you can’t have dreams at that age, when can you?

Instead, they defined “success” in terms of a job (not a career!) that they would feel good about, or a job that involved improving society or helping others. There was much criticism of the materialism and consumerism of parents and peers. Also, they expressed the extreme pressure they felt living in America where success, and the obtaining of success seemed to be a forced right of passage if you wanted to call yourself an American. “We need to redefine,” one student wrote, “the pursuit of happiness.” Wise words.

One student who was in his last semester and had no clue what he was going to do with the rest of his life after graduation, wrote me an email after the class, to thank me for the assignment.

“Never before,” he wrote, “has anyone asked me this question at Berkeley. And now that I think about it, it’s the question I’ve been waiting for in the last four years. By writing about this, in my awkward Dutch, I was forced to examine my own relationship with that charged word, and it has been like an epiphany. Even though I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, the essay has brought me closer to my own personal truth. This is my rather roundabout way of thanking you for the only essay assignment at Berkeley that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

We had a discussion about success and happiness after I returned the essays to the students, and I mentioned one of my favorite Dutch poets, J.C. Bloem, who said Geluk is zich neer te leggen bij al het niet bereikte (Happiness is to resign yourself to everything that you haven’t accomplished). Some of them found this quote too defeatist, and I expected that, because the statement is so unAmerican. After all, giving up on success is like giving up on your American identity. Two students seemed to connect with the quote in a different way.

“Liz,” I said, “Want to say something?”

Liz was always very upbeat and never seemed to have a care in the world, but her eyes seemed to tell me that she understood what Bloem said, and then she told us that she had been a basketball star in high school and even made it to the Junior Olympics. When she was applying for schools, the soccer scholarships started reaching her mailbox, but she declined, because she was waiting for that one dream school, but they never approached her… When she had to make a decision, she was too late for any of the other schools and so she settled for UC Davis, a school she had to pay for herself (since then, she had obviously transferred to Berkeley).

“Het was moeilijk (difficult),” she said in Dutch, “maar het is goed.”

Regine wanted to say something, too. She was auditing my class. She was in her late seventies and her cheeks were always bright red. She was a retired anthropologist and Dutch was the seventh foreign language she wanted to speak. She had lots of stories and was a fount of wisdom. The students accepted her quickly even though the age difference was something to navigate for me, because how do you cater to 18-year-olds and a nearly 80-year-old?

For example, one day, we were talking about clothing and taking your clothes off for which you use the verb uittrekken. Bruce, who was never shy, started talking about aftrekken. Since this word means to “jerk off” I hoped that we’d carry on without anyone noticing that Bruce used aftrekken, but it became an extended Freudian slip, as he babbled on happily about jerking off his pants, and masturbating his socks and tie.

But Regine had noticed the difference and her high voice came from the back of the room: Wat is aftrekken?

Ja, I confessed, Aftrekken, Bruce, is niet uittrekken. And then I continued in Dutch that uittrekken was something you do with your clothes, but aftrekken you do with… too much information… so I rephrased that and said Aftrekken is masturberen.

The class erupted in laughter and I looked over at Regine who was laughing along. I nonetheless apologized to her, but she waved it away and said that she was so glad she now knew the difference between uittrekken and aftrekken.

Strange segue, but when we started talking about success and happiness, Regine was a real asset for our class discussion, too, because I asked her whether she was happy, or felt successful when looking back on her life.

“I grew up in a different time,” she said almost apologetically, “I mean, I was formed by the Depression: back then we didn’t talk about dreams, happiness or careers— the priority was food on the table. So success or dreaming about it is an abstraction. Not helpful.” She further said: “I also went to college when that was much rarer for women, and when I got my BA and, in the end, got my PhD, it was so much more than I had ever expected.”

I went to the blackboard and wrote down:

Alles is veel voor wie niet veel verwacht.

This needed some help with the translation. It means so much as “Everything is a lot for a person who doesn’t expect a lot.”

Regine nodded, and I told the students that that quote also came from J.C. Bloem.

Then I wrote on the board:

Succes is je realiseren dat succes niet bestaat. (“Success is to realize that success doesn’t exist”)

Ook J.C. Bloem? The students asked. Nah, I said, that was my own conclusie.

Next, I told them a story about my son. I had asked him one day whether he cherished any dreams.

“Not really,” he said from the back seat of the car. “Why not?” I inquired.

“Dreams are an illusion.”

“Smart kid,” Regine said.

We were at the top of the hour and students started filing out. They had learned something that day (besides Dutch), but as happened so often after a class was over: I had learned much more in return…

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NOTE: In order to protect the privacy of my students, I have changed their names and details that could identify them. Alas, this doesn’t apply to my husband, Jonathan, and children, Will and Caroline, who make occasional appearances in these vignettes as well. They’ll just have to suck it up, for as Czeslaw Milosz said: When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.

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Chapter Nine: When #TeachingDutch Becomes Social Work


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Sometimes I feel I picked the wrong profession.

As an academic at Cal (Note: I have since become a failed academic and underachieving writer), I felt at times like a social worker.

I don’t quite know what it is about me but when I find myself in public, people head for me to ask for directions, and I am the worst person to ask for directions as I usually head in the opposite direction of where I am supposed to go.

Or worse, complete strangers will confide in me about their mother-in-laws or bowel movement of that morning.

Likewise, at Berkeley, students would come to my office hours to talk about their ex instead of asking questions about how to use the passive construction in Dutch.

This dynamic got a touch of the macabre when, one morning, on a beautiful Fall day, I found a handwritten note in my pigeon hole in the departmental office.

“Dear Professor Hollander,” it opened, “By the time you read this, I will be on my way to the station. I’ve loved your class, but I’ve decided to quit this semester due to a heavy and returning depression. I feel so alone and unhappy. Do you remember, the other day, that you asked us Ben je gelukkig? (Are you happy).”

I remembered that. It’s my usual spiel about opposites in Dutch: lang-kort, hoog-laag, dik-dun, smal-breed, blij/gelukkig-triest/ongelukkig etc.

The note continued: “Well, you asked me if I was happy and I hesitated for a moment, then confirmed this with a false smile, but the truth is I feel very unhappy right now.”

The hair in my neck started to tingle when I read on: “Here are the books you lent me. I loved the children’s book especially. I am tired and I want to die. Best,”

I hurried to my room to log into my student lists as those have email addresses and phone numbers. I called the student and left a voicemail. I sent her an email. Then I called the Tang Center, the Medical Center on campus where we are supposed to walk students when they tell you they want to hurt themselves or express thoughts of suicide.

I asked the psychologist whom I got on the line whether the student had paid them a visit or whether she was on a watch list. No record, but the psychologist took down the student’s name.

Suicide on the Berkeley campus is a dirty little secret. Life as a student in a challenging major at Berkeley is a bit of a pressure cooker and since Berkeley is no cozy little liberal arts college where everyone knows your name, some people get lost… and some throw themselves off Evans Hall when despair wins it from hope.

I reread the note: “I am on my way to the station.” She probably meant the Bart station, to go to SFO airport, but I felt like I was reading Anna Karenina all over again.

I called one of her fellow students, a girl whom I had seen interact with the victim. “No,” the student answered, “We were not close. She was a loner.”

All day long, I felt frustrated. The student didn’t call me or write me back. I checked my email feverishly and obsessively. Nothing.

I am tired and want to die.

When the British novelist Evelyn Waugh decided to end it all by walking into the sea, he was met with a bunch of jellyfish, and terrified of jellyfish, he turned around and called the entire plan off. If only, I thought, I could act as that one deterrent jellyfish, and tell the student I would be there for her. Her note was a cry for help, but I was powerless.

Maybe I took my job too seriously, and, possibly, this kind of concern went way beyond my pay grade but when students came to me in despair, how could I not feel but maternal and protective?

During the two lectures I gave that day I wandered off into the topic of perfectionism, and that failure in life is unavoidable. And that when students see someone struggling, that they need to reach out or do something. With terrorism and gun proliferation in this country the (crazy) way it is, the motto now is When you see something, say/do something— well, the same could be said for people in need.

Kids at Berkeley are overachievers, which is how they got in, but it also means they are vulnerable when they have to deal with failure or not passing an exam.

That same week I had a crying student in my office. No, she wasn’t crying because she regretted taking a Dutch class— she was talking about the chemistry exam she had flunked. She had studied day and night but hadn’t made the cut and when she approached the chemistry professor in his office, his reply was brutal: “Some people have got it, others don’t. Clearly, you don’t.”

He added something to the effect of men doing better in science than women, and well, this gentleman has tenure but is the most tactless, discriminating, emotionless SOB who doesn’t deserve job security at one of the nation’s finest educational institutions. 

They teach bedside manners to doctors only, but some of my colleagues at Cal could have used a lesson in civility and tact. Thus my only colleague in the Dutch program once told an Emeritus scholar from Europe who offered to teach a free class at Berkeley that he wasn’t interested in extending an invitation to the Emeritus because he was “too old”. Wow.

Two days later, I received an email from the student, who in my mind, was still on her way to the station. She thanked me for reaching out and told me she was safe, back in Philadelphia, and with her parents. She was seeing a shrink. Phew. 

I emailed her back, relieved, and thanked her for returning the books.

That same day I mailed a children’s book to Philadelphia.

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Due to the personal nature of this blog, I have changed all the details about this student to protect her/his privacy.

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Chapter Eight: The Dutch Identity (Part II)


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From a 21st-century point of view, our “success” in the seventeenth century is hardly glorious or worth repeating when one thinks of all the bloodshed and unsavory topics such as the Dutch slave trade and colonial greed. Even apartheid is a Dutch legacy that came out of the Calvinist Church in South Africa. Calvinist ministers told its church-going folk that black and white were not supposed to mix. Christopher Hitchens even goes so far as calling the Dutch farmers of the time the Zionists of South Africa.

As enlightened Dutch people today, we don’t like to be reminded of our past horrors and you could argue that both the slave trade and Dutch colonialism are a continuing blind spot in Dutch history. Since the Nazi occupation (1940-1945) is still a relatively fresh memory, we seem to be especially bothered by the fact that we were once an occupying power ourselves.

But we were… admittedly, the Dutch empire is much less well known than the British empire but until WWII the Dutch were an essential part of the ABCD Allies or Powers in Asia: America, Britain, China and… the Dutch (due to their presence in the Dutch East Indies/Indonesia).

Due to this long history (and the fact that we once planted our tricolor all over New York), the Dutch have always been staunch allies of the US, a notion very few Americans seem to be aware of. Just as obscure is that the Dutch are one of the top investors in the US, although that may change now that the American experiment is turning into a Trumpian dystopia of sorts.

The freedom motif that the Dutch have embraced (which returns in America’s DNA through the Bill of Rights, which was a partial copy of William of Orange’s Acte van Verlatinghe (Act of Abjuration)) is something that everyone can get behind, so traditionally we have covered our slave trade and colonial legacies with the cloak of freedom as if it were the greatest good we have exported, besides flowers, cheese and frozen frikandellen.

Certain Dutch freedoms were truly revolutionary and pushed boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s which, for a brief moment in time, made the Netherlands look like a brave new world and an outlier in the rest of the world. I think that reputation has cooled somewhat once populism arrived in the guise of the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn who started discussing and criticizing the effects of the rather open immigration model of the Netherlands. It was a seismic moment for the country, which was underscored by the murder of Fortuyn in 2002. Some have even gone so far to describe Fortuyn’s murder, together with the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the 9/11 moment for the Netherlands.

Fortuyn’s motto at the time was “Assimilate or leave”, and while he has been described as a conservative and anti-immigrant politician, I believe he was more of a libertarian who argued that everyone was welcome in the Netherlands as long as they also respected the freedoms guaranteed by Dutch society. An example: A Muslim father, living in Amsterdam, may tell his daughter that she cannot enroll for a university education, but in Dutch society anyone can go to university provided they have a legit high-school diploma.

These are thorny issues and led by Fortuyn, and then appropriated by MP Geert Wilders, who is truly a white supremacist and Islamophobe, this triggered a culture war in the Netherlands, as well as another question, for if you say “assimilate”, the question of what to assimilate to ties in with the core of the Dutch identity.

What is that identity?

Also, in light of the EU, if there is any Dutch identity at all, what remains of that identity if we are expected to think more like Europeans?

The EU and consolidation of the EU actually caused strong forms of nationalism and regionalism and Brexit is a perfect example that some European countries don’t want to surrender their national uniqueness and identity to a United States of Europe but that is another can of worms altogether, so I will leave it at that.

This brings me back to the question: Who are the Dutch today?

Since Johan Huizinga’s descriptions of the Dutch as devoted, hard-working Calvinist citizens, much has changed in the Netherlands. We are depillarized, we have been secularized and we have become a vibrant multicultural society after WWII. We are freethinkers and independent, but we also have an attitude about telling others that our opinions and advice for the rest of the world are supremely important even though our nation is no larger than Lilliput on the world stage. The Dutch-American James Kennedy thinks that these feelings of superiority derive from five developments in the twentieth century.

First there was an international sense of responsibility after the loss of the colonies. Maybe the Netherlands felt guilty (a Calvinist trait!) about all that colonial greed, because suddenly the Netherlands’ foreign policy was dominated by aid for the developing world and peace missions for the UN.

Secondly, there is our so-called betweterigheid (“I know best”), which, according to Kennedy, comes from our religious independence and what he refers to as “a conscious anti-traditional, anti-authoritarian and individualistic attitude towards personal life choices.” The sixties were the breeding ground for this and Amsterdam became the city for alles moet kunnen (anything goes).

The strong insistence on freedom is, according Kennedy, the third reason for Dutch independence and arrogance. Quite honestly, I think Americans outDutch the Dutch when it comes to individualism and this may have something to do with the herd mentality in the Netherlands of Doe maar gewoon, dat is gek genoeg (Act normal, that’s crazy enough) which sometimes stifles any form of or desire for independence and individualism.

As a fourth reason, Kennedy mentioned all the Dutch social experiments in the Netherlands that were considered taboo (think of our soft drugs policy, euthanasia, gay rights and gay marriage etc.). Kennedy notes that while these social experiments are often seen as progressive, they are in fact more pragmatic in nature. The Dutch feel that problems should be made transparent in order to channel them as a society and, possibly, they should be regulated in order to avoid abuse or bigger problems.

This ties in with Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, who talked about the Dutch pragmatism of “private vices, public benefits”. The Dutch firmly believe that you cannot root out sin or vices, so you might as well turn it into a public benefit. Case in point: though prostitution was always against the law (though legalized in 2000), it was already decriminalized in the seventeenth century because the police in Amsterdam realized that if those ships from the East came into Amsterdam harbor, the men on those ships were horny as hell and the prostitutes were there to form a first line of defense, which meant fewer unwanted sexual advances and rapes in the taverns and streets of the city. Dutch prostitutes were essentially the peacekeepers, aiding law and order in the city, and if there was peace in the city, the shops could stay open, and who was to argue with that?

As a last reason for the Dutch betweterigheid Kennedy mentioned the Dutch social and protest movements for the environment, human rights and world peace. Conservative critics like Walter Laquer even characterized the Dutch cruise missile protests of the 1970s (liever een Rus in mijn keuken dan een kruisraket in mijn achtertuin/I’d rather have a Russian in my kitchen than a cruise missile in my backyard) as a “Dutch disease”.

These days, however, the socialism and idealism of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced with a more conservative neoliberalism of which the earlier mentioned Fortuyn formed the tragic (anti)climax.

Another development that dented Dutch confidence vis à vis their self-esteem and world affairs was the failure of and the genocide at Srebrenica (1995). The Dutch peace keepers who were on the ground were overwhelmed and allowed the genocide to happen without ever lifting a finger. It was a sad case of Dutch courage

In the 1970s, people in Holland complained that the police grew their hair long and didn’t want to act as authoritarians. Likewise, after Srebrenica, Dutch soldiers seemed to want to show the world that “soldiering” had gone out of fashion, too. Some years ago there was an interesting article in The New York Times that dealt with the Dutch troops in Afghanistan. It made the newspaper because the Dutch troops didn’t seek out conflict with the Taliban but avoided it. There were even stories of aggravated US soldiers who reported that Dutch soldiers ran for their jeeps as soon as the Taliban opened fire (yes, a Dutch defense). What was the reason for all of this?

According to a spokesperson of the Dutch soldiers, this was all part of a special tactic: avoid the Taliban but help the local community with important life needs so the population was won over by the troops, while rejecting the Taliban. I read the piece with mixed feelings because weren’t the Dutch indirectly decriminalizing the Taliban, just as they had done with prostitutes and pot at home? Was this another case of Dutch arrogance, I mean, just because it works in the Netherlands (with pot and prostitutes), it may not work at all with the Taliban, or in the rest of the world…?

There is quite a bit to unpack here, but it shows, I hope, that the Dutch do want to do things differently and are not afraid to try out new things for often very practical and down-to-earth reasons.

This is hardly sexy, so what I ended up telling my students is that there are three words that start with the letter -v that are probably worth remembering when you want to say anything about Dutch identity: they are vrijheid (freedom), verdraagzaamheid (tolerance) and vredelievendheid (love of peace).

Freedom because it’s the foundation for every open and democratic society and tolerance because immigration is always a net positive for your economy. We are proponents of peace because we have to keep the peace with others, as we have no national defenses like mountains, and well, war is always bad for the people and business, and since we are, like the Dutch author Multatuli once said, a nation of shopkeepers, we don’t want to wage war if that means we have to board up our shops.

To me the Dutch identity remains a slippery paradox, as slippery as the canals on which we skate, the lakes we sail and the fish we catch. Yes, I am in Dutch, which is another way of saying I’m in trouble, or I have a conundrum on my hands. But then it’s always hard to look in the mirror and describe yourself. 

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Chapter Seven: The Dutch Identity (part I)


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Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,

As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;

This indigested vomit of the sea

~ Andrew Marvell, The Character of Holland (1653)

Who Are the Dutch?!

A language is rooted in a culture and a cultural identity and American students in Berkeley were extremely curious about hearing who the Dutch were and are. If you are Dutch yourself, you can hardly be objective about this and well, the Dutch identity is difficult to pin down.

In 2004, the literary magazine De Gids devoted an entire issue to this question and they entitled the issue Misverstand Nederland, as if the whole country is a collection of many misunderstandings. Thus Henri Beunders asked whether the Dutch were really progressive or bourgeois. Adriaan van Dis wondered why Dutch people will clean their stoop with such devotion but then will forget about applying the wash cloth to themselves. Why, Arjen Mulder asked, do the Dutch use fewer drugs than other nationalities even though drugs are so readily available in the Netherlands? Maarten van Schinkel wanted to know whether our polder economy was truly a success or a myth. Are the Dutch truly tolerant or pseudo-tolerant? Also, are we enlightened for turning a blind eye on prostitution and pot, or are we just being pragmatic?

With the average American, that is to say, the one that doesn’t confuse Dutch with Danish, the stereotype is that of hookers and hash, as well as tulips, wooden shoes, windmills and cheese. Some Americans may think that we smoke dope all day long, walk around in wooden shoes, live in windmills and boats, sell tulips until we’re blue in the face, and euthanize our ailing grandmas when we have nothing else to do on rainy Sunday afternoons. 

We are also seen as tolerant, modern and progressive, if not liberal. Even though American presidents are always quick to claim that America is the freest nation in the world, the Dutch have potentially more freedoms but this too is a trifle contradictory, for the Dutch author Simon Carmiggelt once said: In Nederland mag niks, maar is alles toegestaan (In the Netherlands you can’t do anything but everything is allowed).

Generally, I can report that most Americans have a positive image of the Dutch.

In the past, however, Holland hasn’t always had such a favorable press, and especially with the English. There are numerous expressions in English where the word Dutch has an overwhelmingly negative connotation. Here are a few:

Dutch reckoning: a job that has been done badly or poorly

Dutch party: a party at which the host(ess) is the first drunk person in the house

Double Dutch: gibberish

Dutch auction: an auction at which you can’t inspect the items beforehand or an auction where you go from a high to a low bid, instead of the other way round

Dutch headache: a hangover

Do/Commit a Dutch act: to desert or commit suicide

A Dutch act: suicide

Dutch nightingale: a frog

Often the adding of the word Dutch negates the word. Thus a Dutch door is not a complete door but a door that splits in half and Dutch courage isn’t courage but cowardice and especially when you have drunk too much. A Dutch defense is the opposite, as in when your men don’t attack but run away from the enemy. I am a Dutchman is something that you’re not, as in: If that’s my brother over there, I am a Dutchman.

A Dutch wife is not an actual woman but a body pillow that was used in the Dutch East Indies to absorb the sweat during hot, tropical nights when there was no air-conditioning. Also, since too few Dutch women were interested in risking their lives by going to the Dutch East Indies in the seventeenth century, the pillow possibly doubled as a hump pillow. The Japanese copied the expression and now use the term Dutch wife for a blow-up doll that you can fuck.

A Dutch barn is not a full barn but a barn without walls (for hay) and a Dutch treat is not a treat at all because everyone will pay separately. Going Dutch in the US is still quite popular because if you don’t go Dutch in a date and the guy pays for dinner, he might think he’s entitled to crawling in bed with you that night.

And these are just a few! There are countless other expressions with Dutch, and 85% of these are negative and have to do with cowardice, avarice, alcoholism and boorishness. I have to admit, there are plenty of Dutch people who are cowardly, stingy, heavy drinkers and boors but it is an exaggerated stereotype that derives from the fact that, in the seventeenth century, the English waged not one war, but a total of three wars with the Dutch. Both countries had an excellent fleet and a great ambition to conquer the world. In the areas that still were to be claimed and colonized by Western powers, the English and the Dutch competed who could plant flags and build forts the fastest. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch outdid the English and voilà, the English perception emerged that the Dutch were to be hated, not loved.

In 1623, the anti-Dutch sentiment reached its peak. On the spice island Ambon there was both a Dutch and English factory but when the English attacked Batavia (now Jakarta) and chased out the Dutch temporarily in 1619, the Dutch on Ambon feared their days were numbered, so they preemptively stormed the English factory. The ten British and nine Japanese men who survived this onslaught were tortured extensively and then quartered. This caused a diplomatic row and a lot of anti-Dutch hatred which wouldn’t subside until the Dutch William III became the king of Britain in 1689.

It is not unlikely that the Dutch ridiculed the English just as much in word and deed, but because English became a world language and Dutch was reduced to the swamp language it still is, the expressions with Dutch are like fossils in the English language and obscure reminders of a different time and place, and well, as an added bonus, now everyone in the world can use these expressions to mock the Dutch, even though they can hardly distinguish the Dutch from the Danish, the Swedes and the Germans.

If you’re willing to indulge yourself and study what else the Brits said about the Dutch, you’ll find a treasure trove. The English poet John Dryden hated the Dutch and even wrote a tragedy about the Ambon incident. In it, he warned his countrymen that the Dutch salted their enemies like they salted their herring. To Dryden the Dutch were greedy close-minded peasants en fat assholes who drank too much beer and had no manners. Marvell, whom I quoted above, characterized the Netherlands as “vomit of the sea” and described seventeenth-century Amsterdam as a radical, despicable and multicultural hell.

The reason why there were so many people from elsewhere in Amsterdam wasn’t tolerance per se, but religious freedom and a passion for trade (and making money). In some ways, we owed the Golden Age to religious freedom because many well-connected Jews and tradespeople fled to Amsterdam and called it the New Jerusalem. This population boost made Amsterdam blossom like it had never done before. I tell you: immigrants are always a net positive.

Amsterdam was also the bargain basement for dissidents and dissenters, not because the Dutch were so enlightened but because the freedom of ideas and religion was good for trade and that filled many wallets. Some merchants in Amsterdam were wealthier than some members of the European aristocracy and monarchy. Thanks to Amsterdam, and a vibrant printing press, philosophers like Descartes, Bayle and Spinoza could publish their “radical” books and enlightenment ideas. To the English observer of the time, however, this was sheer madness that could only lead to decadence and decline.

So even though Amsterdam could be perceived as one of the more enlightened places in Europe at the time, we somehow couldn’t shake the stereotype of being farmers and fishermen. The English further marveled at the fact that we, emerging from the muddy and water-logged land, competed so adequately with the English in matters of world trade and dominion. One Englishman described our muddy paradise as the rear of the world: stinky, wet and dirty and therefore the perfect habitat for frogs and other ugly swamp creatures. Even the Romans had turned around when they reached the wet low-lying land and stormy weather. They were convinced these nether regions were the gates to the Underworld.

The image that the English used to perpetually mock us stuck: we were fat frogs, obsessed with butter, beer, cheese and tulips. The fact that we had practically invented the skate also played into our reputation of being smooth, if not slippery operators, and just as slick and slimy as the eels we caught in the North Sea…

To be released next week, Part II: How are the Dutch perceived today?

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Chapter Six: Bike Ride through Oakland


Happiness is easier to reach on a bicycle than in a car.

~ Johan Goudsblom

imagesIn the US, societal success lives in the suburbs and preferably behind walls and fences, which, in the San Francisco Bay Area, are hidden behind fragrant jasmine and other scented climbers. On the other side, you can find the more urban areas of Oakland and Richmond that have had some of the highest crime and murder rates in the country.

If people tell you that segregation is an antiquated phenomenon in America, don’t believe it, for places like Oakland and Richmond are predominantly black. All that California Dreamin’ of The Mamas and the Papas was a white dream apparently because in parts of Oakland and Richmond, you’ll see old homes with holes in the roof and weeds that overtake some of those homes. At night, it may become a scene of gangs and drugs, and bullets may fly through the night sky with a higher frequency than falling stars.

That said, since San Francisco continues to thrive as the Tech Mecca of the world, bad parts of Oakland are now being gentrified, so the following story actually shows that progress is made, although of course gentrification and neighborhood development don’t always benefit the people in the hood, as some of them have to move away because they can no longer afford it.

White farts like us drive by Oakland on the way to San Francisco or the airport, and while we may frequent the hips parts, we all know that we shouldn’t get lost in some of the worst neighborhoods at night. For a long time, I thought this kind of thing was white paranoia, or racism even, but I had to experience it myself by biking through a part of Oakland that, for a white person, wasn’t quite kosher.

Thing is, our car dealer is in Oakland and the car was in for a service so Jon called me and said: “I looked on the map, and it’s easy to get to on your bike. A straight shot, practically.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “Consider it done.”

So after my lecture on the Dutch author Louis Couperus, I jumped on my bike in the direction of Oakland.

In America, commuting by bike is still not done by the majority. In the Netherlands, that’s the reverse and any tourist who has braved the streets of Amsterdam, or rather, wandered into a bike path to take a picture of a seventeenth-century canal house, knows that Dutch commuters on bikes can be as dangerous as Kamikaze pilots.

I need to further tell you that my bike wasn’t a normal upright but a cheap Walmart road bike that came with those special pedals that need the shoes that click into place. It’s better than the leather pedal traps we used to have, but still, if your shoe doesn’t release when you stop, the chance of falling is there. For most people that is not a problem, but like Henry Miller, I do a lot of daydreaming on my bike, so sudden stopping usually results in sudden falling. No doubt, this clumsiness added to my overall insecurity as I was biking through Berkeley and entered Oakland.

I passed a gas station and liquor store with bars on the window. The average pants’ size of pedestrians increased by the block and baseball caps were worn in reverse. There were hairnets too and the kind of pants that drop to the thigh of the wearer to sport underwear for everyone to see, as if the wearer had had a sudden case of anorexia but hadn’t updated their wardrobe yet.

I observed without staring at the car wrecks, which, without tires, were resting on cinder blocks in overgrown front yards. Even if I had wanted to stare, I couldn’t because the biking lane had vanished and the road was getting narrower. Cars were flying past me with the speed of lightning.

A dilemma occurred in the form of a black man who, ahead, was blocking my side of the road. He was wrapped in a deep conversation with a brother on the sidewalk. A rusty mountain bike was his companion, while he himself was dressed in a long black leather coat.

I approached slowly but surely, and hoped he would notice me and step aside so that I didn’t have to get off my bike or swerve into traffic. I could practically smell him but when the man saw me, I pressed on and was thinking about stopping but my feet were locked firmly in my pedals and dearie, dearie dear, in a sudden movement I swerved around him, notwithstanding the honking cars behind me.

But the sudden swerve had been too intimate for the man, and he had spun around and seemed incensed. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw how he was waving his fist and called after with me, with eyes so bloodshot that they looked like Bloody Mary’s: “Yo!!! You white bitch, watch where you’re going!”

Now, that wasn’t entirely fair. The guy had barely moved an inch and even cars had been honking at the roadblock he had formed in the road, so well, OK, I chalked it up to a bad day which we are all allowed to have.

I continued on, deeper into the danger zone. The potholes in the road increased and I realized I had to take a left pretty soon. Because the road was now wider and I didn’t want to take any more risks, I jumped off my bike, to walk to a crossing with a pedestrian light. Most cars stopped before the light turned green for me, so I walked onto the crossing, bike in hand when, from the left corner of my eye, I saw a yellow Toyota speeding towards the intersection. Behind the wheel was a woman who looked like Eddy Murphy in a fat suit. Did she even see me? She stopped with screeching tires and rolled down her window, “Get your fucking white ass out of here…” And did she also say the words albino cunt?

I felt whiter than the worst plantation master in the deep South. I get it, as Americans we should still feel guilty about the Black Holocaust, slavery, Reconstruction, lynchings and that creepy fraternity of the KKK. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t born here but then the Dutch were big-time slave traders and I fear that some of the canal-house wealth of my ancestors wasn’t about tulips or nutmeg but the packing of slaves in the dirty hold of an uncomfortable ship. So it was OK. We had it coming to us.

Nonetheless, I felt like a beaten dog in spandex shorts, walking next to an ugly bike. My knees were shaking. Was it fear or a residual bit of indignation? Or was it the chilly fog that was blown inland like white ribbons of transparent fabric?

Thank god the dealer was close by.

I inhaled deeply.

My good mood at the beginning of my ride had literally vanished into my bike shoes. Click. Clack.

An elderly black man was approaching.

I decided to avoid eye contact. I pretended I admired the shiny new cars in the shop window of the dealer’s. I had had enough reverse racism for one day. I knew I was a white bitch and I didn’t need to hear it for a third time.

At the same time, I felt the eyes of the man fixated on my face and all I could do was ignore it and walk on. Click. Clack. The man stopped to draw my attention. I looked at him now, but I felt smaller than the grass that was defying the cement under my feet. The moment seemed to expand, frozen in time and space.

Ok, I thought, go ahead. I’m a big girl.

I looked at him, so he could speak and the moment could pass.

Go on then, I taunted him, without speaking.

A little bit of abuse— it would be nothing compared everything we had done to our black countrymen. In fact, maybe this was the healing we all needed now and then. It was long overdue.

He opened his mouth and his voice was like an oracle. It had a warm, melodic sound to it, not unlike the voice of Louis Armstrong in his It’s a Wonderful World.

     ‘My, my, my…’ he said.

Alright. I was ready. I was an ugly white hooker in spandex shorts and fake shoes. I was a bossy wench on an itty bitty bicycle. And then he spoke again:

     “You are…one…perty woman,”  he said, which he reinforced with a big smile in a face with wrinkles that gave his face more character and intrigue. I looked over my shoulder because maybe there was some beauty, some Beyoncé walking right behind me, for whom these words were intended. Instead, I saw a lamp post with a sticker that said: Oaktown rocks.

I looked at the man one more time, to see if he was being ironic or crazy.

He was not.

He was still smiling and his joy was contagious. I felt like giving him a hug or a kiss, but that was not an option with that bike, those pants and those damn shoes. So instead I said: “Thank you, sir. You made my day.” And I wasn’t lying.

Clearly, I had learned something. Pride and prejudice are lame. People will always hurt you or curse you out, whether you’re black, white, green or purple. But for every man and woman who says NO, there’s always another who says YES. That’s America— a country with a long, dark history… a tough place but also a far more spontaneous, real and unexpected place than you can ever anticipate.

What can I say? It’s a wonderful world.

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Chapter Five: We Dig Gerard Reve


imagesThis chapter first appeared as an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on July 4th, 2006 under the same title.

Caveat: this was written for the Dutch market, so I’m not sure the English translation here does it any justice…Needless, to say, I changed some things…

In 2006, Gerard Reve, a renowned Dutch novelist, died. But his corpse was barely cold, or fellow novelist Harry Mulisch decided to stomp on his grave with these words in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: “In fifteen years, there’s going to be a new generation in the Netherlands and they won’t understand him. He is untranslatable. It’s for that reason also that he was never a hit abroad.”

Untranslatable, and in a generation or so, out of sight, so out of mind. Maybe Mulisch was projecting, because quite frankly, I think Reve will be remembered where Mulisch might fall into the abyss, but I don’t pretend to be the judge or jury, so, at the time, back in 2006, I decided to turn Reve into a test case for my advanced students in Dutch.

I used to be cautious introducing Dutch authors to American students. The children’s author Annie M.G. Schmidt was always a winner but if I switched to Dutch comedians like Youp van ‘t Hek, who, at the time, was quite popular and still writes a column in one of the major newspapers, I would crash into a wall of misunderstanding. The cynical and unsparing sense of Dutch humor was experienced as cruel and offensive.

I should have listened to my husband, Jon, for, after having lived in the Netherlands for six years, he felt that Dutch humor revolved around making fun of others, and therefore he considered it as rude and immature. Reve’s humor and temperament definitely qualified, and well, maybe he was “untranslatable” for that reason. But untranslatable can also signify a hidden compliment, as in the original is truly so original and unique that translating such an author becomes a conundrum in itself. Or… the original is so “foreign” and specific to a culture that only people who know that culture through thick and thin, will relate to and understand the text.

Quite frankly, in America, the country where foreign movies can barely get distributed because Americans live on an island, and a vast one at that, translations of foreign novels have a hard time breaking through, or getting noticed at all. In 2005, The New York Times noted that of the 185.000 books that were published in America in 2004, only 874 were written by foreign authors. That is less than half a percent of the total of the American book market of that year. Hmm.

It was time to bring in some texts by Reve and see how my American audience responded. I introduced the author briefly, as I didn’t want to influence any opinions ahead of time.

Dutch 125, the highest level of Dutch language acquisition at UC Berkeley, consisted that year of a small but neat group. Paul had Dutch parents but grew up in the US without learning a word of Dutch. Maaike also had Dutch parents and spoke Dutch at home, but even though she was fluent in Dutch, there was an Americanness about her that turned her into the ultimate prototype of a fully integrated and assimilated Dutch person in America.

While both Paul’s and Maaike’s parents broke most ties with the Netherlands and embraced the American Dream, is it the second generation, Paul’s and Maaike’s, who  want to reconnect with their country of origin and that usually coincided with a strange kind of love, passion and nostalgia for the Old Country. I used to see and still see that same sentiment in my children. They are the best Dutch ambassadors, which is why it’s so ludicrous now that the Dutch government is still trying to take away their Dutch passports in an on-going debate of disallowing dual citizenship. 

The third student by the name of Ian was an American Ph.D. student. He was fluent in Dutch, because he spent a year at an American highschool in Deventer. He had a Dutch girlfriend and his dissertation dealt with seventeenth century Holland.

The fourth student was Annisa, from Indonesia who had a wonderful and warm sense of humor. She was a Ph.D. student, too, and specialized in a Javanese legal scholar from the nineteenth century. I would help her with tough Dutch texts that were written in nineteenth-century legalese, so well, Reve, I figured, should have been as straightforward as Dutch apple pie.

Without giving the students the text of a poem by Reve, I played a podcast of the author’s voice which was clearly affected by years of binging booze and inhaling cigarette smoke. In the podcast, Reve read the poem Roeping (Vocation). The voice was deep and mysterious. The students wanted to hear it one more time, to make sure they got the gist.

Roeping

Zuster Immaculata die al vier en dertig jaar

verlamde oude mensen wast, in bed verschoont,

en eten voert,

zal nooit haar naam vermeld zien.

Maar elke ongewassen aap die met een bord dat hij

voor dit, of tegen dat is, het verkeer verspert,

ziet ‘s avonds reeds zijn smoel op de tv.

Toch goed dat er een God is.

~ Gerard Reve

“Genius,” said Ian with a heart-felt enthusiasm I never get tired of in Americans. Annisa struggled with the slangy word smoel and ongewassen aap, and when I told her what they meant, a big smile broke across her face. Later, in an email, it became clear that the poem had stayed with her, for she told me that she went to a Catholic highschool: “I saw these nuns in action,” she wrote. They reminded me of Sufis — that we are here to serve others.”

She said some other stuff that I will omit here but oh my god, it was much more elegant and gracious than the In Memoriam of Reve by another Dutch writer, Jan Wolkers, who wrote in de Volkskrant: “At parties he [Reve] would emerge from the kitchen with his dick on a plate in front of him. He would have draped some lettuce leaves around it and some cheap mustard. Everyone had to laugh, but no one wanted to have a bite.” Dutch humor again, and in the times of #MeToo such a scene is entirely unimaginable. Wolkers with Reve, and Mulisch, was one of the “greats” too, but I doubt whether Wolkers will survive the test of time.

OK. It’s time to give you a quick translation of the above poem:

Vocation

Sister Immaculata who, for thirty-four years,

has been washing, cleaning and feeding

incapacitated old people in their beds,

will never see her name mentioned anywhere.

But any scruffy jackass who, with his pro-this and

anti-that placards blocks traffic,

can already see his mug on the tube that evening.

It’s good there is a God.

~ Gerard Reve

But Reve was a novelist, not a poet, so it was time to show the students the opening page of Reve’s most famous work, De avonden (De Evenings), which is a postwar novel that revolves around the observations of the cynical protagonist, Frits van Egters.

At a steady clip we read through the opening page and the students noticed the details immediately: the compulsory obsession with time and Frits’s watch, hanging on a nail on the wall, and the description of a birthday party.

“Ah, the Dutch birthday visit,” Paul exclaimed, remembering that he was only allowed to have one piece of pastry as a child, even when the host offered him another.  And then there is the Dutch wc-kalender. Every Dutch bathroom on the ground floor has one hanging on its door. In it are all the birthdays of family and friends, so when you’re taking your time and staring at the door and calendar (while nearly dying of an aneurysm because you know you’re not supposed to push but you do it anyway), you notice it’s tante Emilie’s birthday, so the first stop after the bathroom (and washing your hands!) is the phone. You call tante Emilie and say something to the effect of: “I was just taking a crap, and saw it was your birthday! Happy birthday!”

The Dutch birthday visit is something else, because you’re forced to introduce yourself and go around the room— three or two kisses, and you’re obliged to say Happy Birthday to everyone in the room, even the dog, the cat and the rabbit: Gefeliciteerd met Anna, ja, jaaa, gefeliciteerd hè, met Anna, wat wordt ze groot! Gefeliciteerd met Anna, etc.    

The students were heavily absorbed in Reve. A chuckle was heard: Reve captured the small-minded Dutch milieu to a tee, and when some surreal dream elements entered the text (a coffin, a man in a bowler hat), the students turned the page as if the last, broken-off sentence was a total cliffhanger.

They were digging Gerard Reve.

When the class was over, Anissa wrote down De Avonden and Ian asked if he could borrow my Dutch copy. All four students were born thousands of miles away from the Netherlands but they related and recognized something in Reve that they felt a deep connection with.

It was a valuable lesson.

Mulisch has since kicked the bucket, too, but I should have sent him the article and told him: You know what?! We simply don’t give the next generation enough credit.

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