There it was: a sign up sheet, tacked in the elevator, right to the left of the buttons. New Year's drinks on Sunday at 4pm. Please join us!
lived in this building for more than six years, and though I greet my
neighbors, I've always avoided the yearly drinks. Why? I'm a social person. I love getting to know new people. It's
because I know everyone who shows up at these things is Dutch, and my
Dutch has never been good enough for extended casual conversation with ten to 15
people. And after more than a decade in this country I know well my discomfort in
"forcing" people to speak English.
This year, I came back from a
trip to the park with my son, and saw the party had just started. They
waved, I waved, and Adrian, as two-year-olds do, noticed the most
important features of the gathering: "Mira, mama! People! Comida!"
took a deep breath and decided to go for it. I sat in the circle (it's
always a circle), accepted a glass of wine, and supervised Adrian's
countless trips to the food table for olives! Cheese! Galletitas! Carrots!
And I had conversations in Dutch. For two
hours. Because I can finally do it, I learned such interesting
things. I have a neighbor who lived in Suriname for 14 years. She said
the culture shock was incredible when she returned, not only because she
felt Surinamese, but because she felt black. A woman told me she had
visited Wisconsin, and though it's called the Dairy State, the cheese - I'm really sorry,
she said - is not nearly as good as Dutch cheese. (I'd have to agree,
except Wisconsin kicks ass with the cheese curds). One plays the oboe;
another sings in a choir. Yet another had retired from the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and, peering over his tortoise shell reading glasses,
listed his six hobbies in meticulous detail. Another enthusiastically
invited us into her home to admire her new furniture (clearly the wine
was flowing fast at that point).
I'm not preaching about learning Dutch. If you're an expat
here in the Netherlands, you've probably come across
some holier-than-thou posts by expats shaming other expats for their
poor Dutch skills. Those posts make me feel defensive and pissed off. Though important, being "integrated" is about a
lot more than language, and it is a two way street.
That said, I know the Dutch well enough to hardly expect a knock on the door; an invitation to coffee
or dinner or more drinks. I'm not sure I would want that anyway. But I
am fairly confident that elevator greetings from this group will be more
enthusiastic and friendly. I also know even if I'm ever fluent I will never feel Dutch. But at least I
can drink with them in their own language.