20 January 2013

Gems of toddler bilingualism

Adrian is nearing 2 1/2 and lives in an English, Spanish, and Dutch language environment. Though he doesn't say much in Dutch, he speaks a beautiful mix of Spanish and English.

Before becoming a mama, I definitely imagined the ins and outs of raising a child. But I never pictured speaking to a baby who understands table is also mesa and tafel. A couple years in, I've mastered sticking to my mother tongue while answering bilingual toddler queries. In fact, it's become as natural as dressing him or giving him a bath. Once the Dutch kicks in, we'll be totally incomprehensible to the outside world!

Here are some code switching gems from the past few months, complete with translation (every two-year-old needs that anyway, right?). Mama and Papá are self-explanatory. Nene is what he calls himself.

Mama la agua de Nene está right there en la mesa! (Mama, Nene's water is right there on the table!)

Aquí hay some people. (Here there are some people.)

Bye, Mama. Nene leaving to Nueva York. See you the next day. (Bye, Mama. Nene is going to New York. See you the next day.)

Papá, me voy un poco de agua. Ahora come back. (Papá, I'm going to get a little water. Now I'm coming back.)

This is para to eat? (This is to eat?)

And my personal favorite, when pointing at a London double decker bus:

Hay people abajo y up!  (There are people below and up!)

I can't wait to see what he comes up with next. Below is a video of him describing his experience at the New Year's drink with the neighbors (the subject of my last post).

08 January 2013

New Year's drink with the neighbors

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!

I've 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!"

I 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.

04 August 2012

In flight toddler

The epic bi-annual journey was once again upon us: It was time for the flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, alone with my toddler. Adrian is now approaching the age of two. For those unacquainted with the term "infant ticket," this means while traveling with a child under two years, you pay about 10 percent of the seat price. This is a great deal, but there is a trade-off: You must share your seat with your infant, or in my case, your long-legged toddler who insisted on keeping his shoes on as he savagely kicked the seat in front of us and the kind man next to us.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Soon after takeoff, Adrian vomited. Just a little. I'm prepared with a highly absorbent towel and wiped up the mess, which landed on both our pants and his shirt. It was a textbook clean up: quick and subtle. In fact, I'll bet my seat partner wouldn't have noticed if it wasn't for Adrian imitating his own barfing sounds for the next five minutes. Still, the experience came with a sinking feeling: the screen in front of me reported 7 hours and 40 minutes remaining in the flight.

Anything goes on flights, and I think kids get that. My previously-unexposed-to-television son watched Cars 2 - twice. He ate snacks by the handful, pulled the window screen up and down to say "hello" to the moon, and repeatedly pushed the flight attendant call button (which didn't matter - apparently they don't respond anyway). I practiced my meditative breathing and watched the time tick away. 6 hours and 29 minutes. 6 hours and 28 minutes. 6 hours and 27 minutes.

There was a period of pseudo sleep. As an infant, Adrian was swaddled and slept for long stretches without moving. Now, he's a stomach sleeper and a toss and turner. He woke up every 30 minutes or so, crying, thrashing, and kicking. I apologized multiple times to my seat partner, who said he was a father, too. Later, he mentioned how they hadn't flown with their son until he was five. I'm not sure if he said this with admiration or reproach. The couple sitting in front of us snuggled their heads together and slept sweetly. I looked on with a jealousy usually reserved for famous writers or lottery winners.

Eventually, we made it. Though I felt slightly less euphoric than last year's trip, I was still relieved to be walking the hallways of Schiphol. It's a challenge, but a necessity in the life of an expat. Besides, next time we'll pay for his own seat.

13 June 2012

Apple, Starbucks, home?

Amsterdam now has the biggest (and dare I say coolest) Apple store in the world. It also has the most eclectic Starbucks I have seen. Both opened earlier this year - one on Leidseplein, and one on Rembrandtplein.

Just picture it: Shiny MacBook Pros at aesthetically pleasing intervals. "Can I help you?" A young blond guy, an Amsterdam Dutchie with perfect English who is Apple personified. He's quick, he's knowledgeable, and he's hyper aware of the global dominance of his employer. He's no doubt a convert himself. Then there's the barista at Starbucks: as friendly and efficient as any in small town USA, but she's Ukrainian. We speak a few obligatory Dutch sentences to demonstrate our "integration" but then chatter on in English about how cosmopolitan Amsterdam is. She puts it best: it's like being in a giant airport. She's right. As I munch on a muffin I listen to the flow of languages and watch a dizzying variety of races walk down the steps, ready to place their order.

Spontaneously, I love both places. I'll admit it: For me, Starbucks and Apple symbolize home. In my years abroad I've enjoyed the privilege of English spoken on every corner, American pop music on every radio, TV series and films straight from Hollywood broadcast on Dutch TV. Now, it's the coffee and the computers. For better or worse, "home" follows U.S. citizens everywhere they go, especially in major metropolises.

But on some level it does strike a false note. Starbucks "coffee laboratory"has worked to integrate sustainable and local materials and is positioning itself as a cultural center. Apparently this is the future of Starbucks: to seamlessly blend with their environment, instead of plopping cookie cutter shops all over the globe. But it's still Starbucks. Part of me longs for the local coffee shop, even if the locals don't have wireless or soy milk. The uneasiness is not just about the impact on the locals. Some believe that travel or living abroad should be about experiencing things unique to the host culture. But for me, a sometimes reluctant expat, sitting in a Starbucks or talking hard drive space with Apple personnel is where I feel most at home.

This might be the future, for now. I'll sip my latte and soak up the ambiance and try not to think about how this could be the only option in 20 more years. I'll also ask myself the hard questions, like do I need my coffee to taste the same in every city I visit in the world?

30 May 2012

Open City

Last night at a John Adams Institute event, I admired the Amsterdam view from the fifth floor at Booking.com. I had the privilege of listening to Teju Cole's elegant account of his new novel, Open City. His camera sat next to him - just in case. The evening came to an end as the sun was setting, and the audience rushed forward to meet the author. Teju guessed the correct spelling of my name, signed my book, and cheered my likeminded desertion of an academic career.

When I was young, before I had a clear understanding of fiction, I always read first person narratives as if the author was speaking directly to me. There was no separation between writer and narrator; the thoughts of the narrator were identical to the author's deepest wishes and fears. Creativity was only manifest in craft. Reading Open City brought back this habit. As I turned the pages I could almost see Teju roaming the streets of New York and then Brussels, soaking it all in with his keen eye and then writing out his observations, long hand. As a fiction writer myself, I know that characters can take over a project, almost pulling the writer along to follow a certain personality or fate. But my enjoyment of this book was greatly enhanced by this long forgotten habit.

The book is wonderful in its steadiness. It's not a novel in the traditional sense. There is no pull towards the end, no rapid page turning, no crisp plot. Instead, there exists a quiet wish to know the fate of the narrator, Julius. By the time I was embedded in the unhurried, deeply descriptive style, I was able to accept that I would only learn bits and pieces about Julius, and I knew I would be satisfied with whatever he gave me, even though all revelations were not welcome.

Reading Open City is a leisurely journey, a tribute to observations and encounters with other people. Teju's writing is intelligent and detailed oriented. He is calm, measured, but with a matter of fact tone also reveals Julius' anger and irritation, and even denial, making him strikingly human. He makes us see the world in sharper contrast.

If you don't have time to read the book, at least follow Teju on Twitter. His tweets, as his novel, are like nothing you've ever seen.

21 April 2012

A Dutch-Spanish wedding

I recently attended a Dutch-Spanish family wedding in Limburg. Both sides are partly in-laws: my hubby's aunt married a Dutch guy back in the 70's. They produced two Dutch-Spanish children and raised them on Dutch soil. Last night, one of those kids - all grown up - married a Dutch woman. As this family has lived in Limburg their whole lives, they are quite Dutch. But the Spanish family is still Spanish, and many of them decided to take the trip up north to attend the wedding.

Confused? It's OK. It was a little bit confusing for everyone. Take the dress code, for example. We all arrived at the church and stood around waiting for the bride and groom. It was easy to figure out national origin, and I'm not talking about language or height differences. I'm talking about choice of attire. In my years of having a Spanish family, I've learned that they dress up for weddings. And when I say dress up, I mean dress up. I'm talking royalty wedding wear: hats, furs, heels and matching clutches. Beautiful fabric flowers in the women's hair. Smart suits for the men. It's breathtaking, and I've always felt a little bit under-dressed.

But once I saw the Dutch contingent, I felt better. Some of the men were wearing suits, and some of the women wore skirts or dresses. But the dresses were paired with everyday leather boots. And then I saw jeans. And more jeans. Then I started noticing sneakers. When we walked into the church and sat down, most of the Dutch opted to leave their coats on (it was cold, I'll give them that). And I'm not talking wool or cashmere. I'm talking multicolored windbreakers and puffy winter jackets. I'm no fashion queen but it was really kind of horrifying.

The ceremony was nice and partly bilingual. The only hitch was when a guest's mobile phone rang. The vocalist was in the middle of a beautiful rendition of Ave Maria, and she fought mightily to stay in tune against the loud and cheerful Nokia ring tone. She managed, and the bride and groom lit the unity candle without further interruptions.

It made sense that hardly anyone could communicate with each other. Dutch people don't usually speak Spanish, and Spanish people hardly ever speak Dutch. So there was just a handful of us that knew both languages and could facilitate some kind of understanding. For the first couple hours at the reception, I thought I was one of those people. Then, at dinner, one of the waiters came up to my entirely Spanish speaking table and started explaining the menu to me in Dutch. I couldn't understand him, so I asked him to switch to English. He began describing the entree: Seared duck liver with poached Anjou pears on the side, and creamed leeks with toasted walnuts over a red wine balsamic reduction. I shrugged my shoulders in defeat. "Es pato," I said weakly, then hubby jumped in with a slightly more complete translation.

Dancing (and alcohol) always lowers barriers. As the night wore on I watched a sizable minority of the Spanish guests enthusiastically join the conga line. But the most stunning example of cross cultural connection came in the form of a message delivered via ballpoint pen. We saw it the next morning at breakfast, when a Spanish cousin sheepishly pulled up her sleeve to reveal a message from a friend of the groom. The Dutch guy had scrawled his phone number on the inside of one of her arms, and on the other he had written "Ik vind je zoooooooo lekker!!"

Charming. Who knows? Maybe, someday soon, we'll have another one of these weddings.

20 March 2012

Amsterdam's Food Film Festival

Like food? Want to learn more about where your food comes from? For me and for many, the trend toward knowing what's really on your plate is becoming more about politics than any expertise in fine dining. Last weekend I attended the Food Film Festival, an initiative from the Youth Food Movement based in Amsterdam. They are committed to creating a fairer and healthier food system, and this film festival is one of their most popular tactics in spreading the word about their cause.

Among other offerings, the Food Film Festival had a small market that took over the Timorplein in east Amsterdam. I strolled around for some time, sampling delicious cheeses and breads and learning about local food initiatives like Ruud Maaz. Then I headed inside for a rest and a plate of beet hummus.

I saw the film Raising Resistance, and learned about how campesinos are revolting against the large-scale soybean cultivation in Paraguay. I learned that soy plantations use pesticides that kill everything but the soybeans - including any neighboring crops grown by the local farmers. I really found it creepy to see those soybean fields, everything dead and crackling in the ground except the soybeans themselves. This is the face of modern agriculture, and these soybeans feed the cows that provide the meat that so many demand at low prices. Did you ever think that choosing to eat a cheeseburger with your fries had deadly consequences for a small local farmer in Paraguay? I certainly hadn't thought of it.

Oh, and I almost forgot - when I walked into the theater, I was handed a small tub of Ben & Jerry's chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I eyed it suspiciously until I learned that Ben & Jerry's is tooting their socially responsible horn pretty loudly. Their mission statement seems to be the typical mix of general, feel-good statements, though their occupy statement is better. As I savored the flavor I was cautiously optimistic about my future ice cream intake. And chocolate chip cookie dough? Yum.

It would have been great to attend more films, but when I checked a couple weeks before the festival was scheduled to start, everything was sold out. Next year, I'd better plan well in advance!