The best way to master a foreign language is to jump in and start interacting with the locals. Sure, you will make mistakes – such as signing off an email with ‘friendly vegetables’ instead of ‘kind regards’ (writing groenten instead of groeten), or mispronouncing the word ‘yellow’ and unknowingly telling someone that you bought horny flowers (gele bloemen vs. geile bloemen). Be assured, confusion will abound and language mix-ups will be plentiful, especially when the locals chatter away fluently at high-speed. Here is one such story: a lucky misunderstanding about Nazis.
Whether being an expat is a lifelong ambition to live abroad or simply the by-product of a change in career, those first few weeks of living in a new country are always full of adventure. Excitement mixes with uncertainty as you find your way through each day with a heightened awareness of the foreign culture and your new surroundings which magnifies every experience. Simple things such as pulling apart your first warm stroopwafel, fresh from the griddle on market day, feel like you have discovered something so special that you know you must be the first person outside of the Netherlands to have ever eaten one. Who wouldn’t immediately start to formulate a business plan to get rich selling these gooey delights everywhere else in the world?!
On the other hand, getting cursed at in Dutch as you try to navigate your first rush hour in the rain on a bicycle makes you wonder why you ever moved to this chaotic, rude and overcrowded little swampland country in the first place. (I love it here – really, I do – except on rainy commute days.) It might be useful to know that the window for these heightened awareness experiences doesn’t last long – a few months at best. Soon, you will be an ingeburgerd (established) local, furiously ringing your own bell at the ‘stupidity’ of tourists who must have been raised by jackals because they never learned how to ride a bike properly.
It was in the naivety of those first few weeks as an expat that I had a chance encounter in a local park. And a lucky misunderstanding about Nazis.
Confused communication in the park
Zannenpark is a green, leafy oasis in the heart of my first Dutch neighbourhood in Haarlem Noord. This is a park where the kids are fenced in and the dogs are allowed to run free – just my kind of place and an unheard arrangement back in America. I walked my dog Sage there every evening, enjoying friendly encounters with some of the other local dog owners. It helped that Sage was an enthusiastic ball of energy who could play for hours with any dog that happened to wander within a 100-metre range of her. Her behaviour ensured lots of encounters.
On one of those first evenings, Sage joined in with a couple of other dogs that were already running in the field. Two women were standing and talking, watching the dogs. The women were very different ages. The older was in her 70s and the younger was in her mid-30s, about my age at the time. The younger must have heard me giving Sage a command in English because she smiled and asked: ‘What breed is your dog?’
‘A German Shorthaired Pointer,’ I replied, stepping closer to join their conversation. She translated my response into Dutch for the older woman, who nodded with a tight smile. The older woman didn’t seem as comfortable in English – or perhaps she wasn’t as comfortable with me. I couldn’t quite tell but at least the younger woman was very friendly and we continued with a few more pleasantries about where I came from and how long I had lived in Haarlem (2 weeks at that point). The dogs showed no signs of tiring and the woman seemed eager to talk, so I turned the conversation toward my favourite topic – travel.
‘I’d really like to get Sage for a little road trip over to Germany, maybe the Black Forest area. My family is originally from there,’ I said proudly sharing my own European roots. ‘Is it easy to travel with a dog across country borders?’
The younger woman turned to the older woman and they began speaking in Dutch. It was a rapid-fire, animated, back-and-forth conversation between the two. I had taken a few online language lessons and was trying to follow what they were saying, but they spoke so quickly that it all blurred together for me. Then my heart skipped a beat. Did I hear that correctly? Did the older woman just say: ‘Fucking Nazi?’ Really?!? No! I couldn’t have possibly heard that, right? I mean, I have a German breed dog. I want to travel to Germany. I just told them that my heritage is German. Maybe it’s like the American South here. Maybe the Dutch are still fighting the war? I didn’t want to jeopardise my ability to make friends in this new neighbourhood. I needed to quickly clarify that I wasn’t a Nazi. So, I interrupted them – very abruptly, and rather rudely.
‘It was 200 years ago that my family left Germany…way before the war,’ I said with an apologetic tone. ‘I just thought it might be nice to see where they came from. That’s all.’ The younger girl crinkled her nose, looking at me as if I was a bit daft for blurting out such a strange thing. She turned back to the older woman and translated. They resumed their discussion, but were looking sideways now, very uncertain of me.
I strained my ears to listen in again and try and understand anything that they were saying. Their conversation continued at the same breakneck pace, when – damn! There it was again! ‘Fucking Nazi!’ I definitely heard it that time! They think I’m a Nazi because of my German heritage! This is crazy! That is not what I intended when asking about Germany. I waived my hands and interrupted again.
‘Wait a minute. I am not a Nazi!’ I pleaded, shaking my head.
Shocked looks came across both of their faces. The younger girl took a step back.
‘What!?! A Nazi!?! What are you talking about?’ she asked in exasperation.
‘I heard you,’ I said pointing to the older woman. ‘You said “Fucking Nazi”.’
They looked at each other and I could tell that they were seriously regretting having started this conversation with the crazy American dude. The older woman turned to call her dog and get the hell out of there. The younger woman also turned to go, then stopped. Her eyes lit up and she grabbed her friend’s arm, laughing. ‘Vaccinatie! He heard us talking about vaccinations and thought we were calling him a Fucking Nazi!’
Seeing the funny side and living to tell the tale
Much laughter (and relief) ensued, and 16 years later with an NT2 language certificate under my belt, I still can’t even imagine how that first conversation must have sounded to my now good friend Esther.
It turns out that Americans are the ones obsessed with the war (at least this American was) – and sometimes people are just friendly and want to welcome you into their community. So, embrace the naivety of those first few weeks of your expat adventure. It’s a wild and exciting ride that doesn’t last nearly long enough. You’ll make a lot of mistakes, but you’ll just as surely miss it when it’s gone. You really never know if a naive and misguided misunderstanding of the word vaccinatie in a foreign language (pronounced ‘fax-sin-aat-zie’) will be the basis of a lifelong friendship in your new country.
Embrace the naivety of those first few weeks of your expat adventure – it’s a wild and exciting ride that doesn’t last nearly long enough