Archive for October, 2008


The perfect crime

Today I was working in my favourite café in town, the brasserie of the Court Hotel, when an old, respectable-looking gentleman sat down at the table next to mine. He ordered a jonge jenever (a locally distilled, juniper-flavoured spirit sometimes unfortunately translated as Holland gin), and since this is the drink that I love to order but hate to drink, my ears pricked up, and I paid attention when it arrived. The glass he received was so big I felt I had to make a comment, so I said in my best Dutch, “Gee, that’s quite a doozy!” He emitted a wide-eyed laugh in the manner befitting refined elderly gentlemen, and we struck up a conversation.

He had several gift-wrapped books with him, and so I mentioned that his pleasant day obviously hadn’t begun with the jumbo-size jenever. He explained that they were gifts for people who had helped him run a foundation that he had opened some time ago in order to finance his Dutch translation of a set of Leopold Mozart’s letters that had never before been released in a single translation. And since the book had been such a success, the foundation was no longer necessary and was being wound-up, hence his gifts to those who had helped him over the years. I mentioned that I was also a translator (which he found very nice), and had been toying with translating Herman Gorter’s Mei into English. He in turn told me about a poem in High Middle German he once translated as part of his 7-year German degree in the 1980’s which is also 4000 verses long, and proceeded to recount the entire tale of Aue’s Gregorius for me. It was all very entertaining.

We continued exchanging tidbits like this, and after about 10 minutes one of his comments struck me as odd. He said, ‘It’s curious but wonderful the way that foreigners, with an outside view of the language, seem to notice things differently than you and I do.’ Then, so that the gentleman wouldn’t continue to labour under a misapprehension, I deemed this an appropriate moment to mention that I was, in fact, a foreigner, and had been living in the Netherlands for 5 years.

Well, I can tell you that that man’s reaction made those 5 years worth it. Now, having completely fooled a published linguist into thinking that I was Dutch, I think I can safely say that my work here is done.


House MD

Since I’ve been watching House MD recently like it’s going out of fashion, I think my brain may have gone into analytical overdrive. Today whilst cycling home in the rain (go Netherlands!) I realised that I caused quite an interesting traffic situation – I hindered the progress of a car that was travelling in front of me. ‘What?’ I hear you ask, ‘How can that be? You were behind the car, and you were hindering its progress?’ Sounding like a House episode yet?

It immediately also occurred to me that I should blog about this, ergo this post. That realisation was accompanied by the fact that I would probably need a diagram to explain exactly what happened (they do that on House too). However, since I’ve determined that I’m significantly underperforming in my professional life, I thought my brain could use the challenge of trying to explain it without the use of a diagram (ergo the lack of diagram). But if you all agree to concentrate and do your best, then I’m sure this post will be a challenge, and hence beneficial, to all of us. Ready? Here we go…

Cycling as happily as I could in the rain behind car A (on the right side of the road – this is Europe), we approached a 4-way intersection. Then car A stopped, half of it having crossed the intersection, and the back half still sticking back into the intersection, half-blocking the road. I had stopped behind it, and was therefore standing in the middle of the intersection, blocking the transverse street. So far so good.

But why had car A stopped? Well, there were parked cars on the other side of the intersection, which car A needed to move to the left to avoid. Unfortunately, oncoming car B was on the left-hand side of the road and not moving, so car A could not advance.

Which brings us to why oncoming car B had stopped. Well, it was stuck behind oncoming car C, which had waited for car A to pass before it could make a left-hand turn into the transverse street. But of course it could not do the turn that it had planned to make, because, yes siree, I was now blocking the intersection! And since car A in front of me couldn’t advance because of car B, and car B was stuck because of car C, and car C was stuck because of me, we had a very nice little paradox on our hands for a moment there.

So what happened? Well, I enjoyed the paradox for a while, and then did what all cyclists in the Netherlands do in a tricky situation – I dematerialised in a puff of smoke. Oh no wait, cyclists aren’t actually that expendable, everyone just thinks they are. No, I just moved over a bit and let car C pass, then everything was hunky-dory.

For a moment though, the complaining, I-know-my-rights Dutch part of me did consider getting out my mobile and calling the Queen, to tell her that the government needed to completely rewrite the urban planning regulations because they shouldn’t allow paradoxes. But the really pragmatic Dutch part of me said that that would be such a laborious process and I’d be standing in the rain too long, and I would get home faster if I just moved over.



Today I couldn’t resist translating yet another of Ikzalwelgekzijn‘s entries, which I believe encapsulates a fundamental element of the Dutch psyche:


Yesterday I was watching an old episode of QI, and the question came up of what the main ingredient of air is. And my brain said nitrogen and my brain said stikstof, and then I spent a not insignificant amount of time trying to figure out whether they were, in fact, the same thing.

Implying that the same knowledge is stored in two different places, in two different languages.

How inefficient.