Feb. 1st, 2012

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I started some Dutch lessons last week. They originally put me in the complete beginners' class, since the assessment for levels was mostly done over the phone and I clammed up at anything beyond 'ik kom uit Engeland', but after two two-hour lessons of that, it was clear (and best of all, clear to me) that I wasn't in the right place. I do know more than the complete beginners, and not only were we not covering anything I didn't know but we weren't about to be either.

I ought to be able to use these things that I know to say stuff, but thanks to a lack of both practice and confidence, I can't. But this week they let me move up to the second-level class anyway. It isn't a lot higher, but assumes that the very basics don't need walking through, and that frees up time for practice instead. So the main benefit of these lessons for me, certainly for now, is the chance to prattle. Put simple sentences together, turn them around, try and say the same thing in a different way, a different thing in the same way, the way you couldn't talk to anyone you needed to actually exchange meaningful information with, and then hopefully I will get talking, rather than just listening and reading.

I can hear enough, these days, to help non-Dutch speakers out with train announcements; they're generally repeated in English, but not when something's going wrong and the conductors are distracted, which is of course exactly when non-Dutch people going to and from the airport on the fast train want to know what's gone wrong. And I can read enough to read the newspaper for the sake of the stories, not just the reading practice, though still only at free-newspaper reading levels. I think I'm getting more of a feel for the place through that than through anything else.

One aspect I'm enjoying reading about is the weather we're having right now. Freezing cold, drifty bits of snow, same as the UK, basically, but while I've always liked snow I've always been irritated by the same bloody stories and arguments that come up in the British press every single time there is any. Infrastructure can't cope - but it can in colder places - yes, but they pay more for it, do you want to pay more - shuffle out of that one muttering, try whinging instead, like why do schools shut at the drop of the first flake, health and safety gone mad, must write in and complain to someone about it, after I've been out sledging with the children and we've built a snowman of course, which I will of course in no way enjoy... Pfft. There have been a few newspaper stories here covering the downsides of the cold, that there have been serious effects in Eastern Europe, that some people are nervous about driving in winter weather (46 percent of women versus only 11 percent of men, in a recent survey) that some building companies are trying to get out of letting their workers stop when it gets colder than minus 6, which they have to do by law here. But that's not the main focus at all. The Dutch see all this cold, and there's only one thing they're thinking about, and that's going skating.

It makes sense in a country with this much linear water, after all. As soon it freezes, they're on it like a shot. The papers are full of stories about skate manufacturers and shops getting mobbed, speculation about which state will be the first to have enough ice to hold a marathon-distance skating race, pictures of cheerful people testing ice depth, firemen flooding fields with hoses, handy diagrams explaining what temperature is needed for what length of time to produce the required amounts. Where snow gets a look in, it's in the context of how it keeps the lowest layers of the air nice and cold and therefore promotes water freezing. There's been more or less no mention of anything like traffic or transport problems; I understand the train system still falls apart in a British fashion if there's appreciable amounts of snow, but no-one really cares if it does because they all just go skating instead. The most exciting thing of all, if gets cold enough for long enough, is the Elfstedentocht, which is a 200km one-day skating race around eleven cities in Friesland, travelling on frozen canals all the way. I doubt it'll happen this year but the mere possibility that it might (the last one was in 1997) is getting people all in a hoop-la. If the country does suddenly go skate-nuts this weekend I'm not quite sure what I'll do (my skating ability is limited to puttering round the edge of a rink, trying not to think about falling over all the time) but it's certainly making a pleasant change.


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