There’s something amazing about running into friends in a foreign country, a mysterious sense of adventure mixed with belonging that I got to experience two weeks ago when I saw the Northwestern group in Amsterdam. My parents joined me across the Atlantic, where we ventured over the English Channel to our homeland. After 20 years of annually clomping my wooden shoes, singing Dutch songs and wearing ridiculous costumes to embrace my cultural heritage felt like a journey in Fairy Land or somewhere out of a Nursery Rhyme. Canals pop up about every other street, and every building has the tall, narrow, Dutch-fronted look that Orange City’s Central Avenue mimics.
In addition, everyone on the street looked like they could be my third cousin’s nephew’s children. Though the tall, blonde-haired stereotype is probably an over-generalization, I couldn’t stop turning my head to see if that really was one of the Vandersmas or VandeZandschulps or De Jongs from home. The most shocking sign of my family’s true homecoming was that our surname has never had less pronunciation trouble. No one tried to call us Mr., Mrs., or Miss Mule-in-burg; it was always “mull” or even, once, “mu-achhhhll,” with a nice throat-clearing “ach” in there.
My ignorance led me to believe that all Amsterdam residents spoke flawless English, I was unnerved by the initial sight of line after line of Dutch on the signs and advertisements. Due to my parents’ and my impeccably Dutch appearance, many waiters and waitresses tried Dutch on us before responding to our befuddled expressions with comforting English. We battled with a Dutch menu once before our waiter kindly apologized, and then started teasing us by mixing French words into his linguistic repertoire.
Later, on Sunday morning, we attended a real live Dutch church service, which was a shocking replica to many of Orange City’s finest Reformed Churches. The only words in Dutch I know are “de bezem” (the broom) and “molen” (windmill), yet the tongue didn’t sound completely foreign to my ears. The throat-gurgling consonants were a little harsh, but the tone and pitch sounded like my grandparents having a conversation over a cup of coffee and an almond patty at the Dutch Bakery.
This made me wonder whether I should feel bad about not being fluent in three languages. I guess it’s just not as much part of our lives back in the States; we don’t need to learn French, English, and Italian in order to get around our neighborhood. My dad lamented the fact that his grandparents didn’t pass their Dutch fluency onto their offspring. Maybe we would all know Dutch now if we had kept it in the family. My family lost the language in three generations because my grandparents wanted their family to become “fully American.” This might not be the case for everyone, but it seems that this plagues a lot of immigrant families. I definitely don’t have the answer, but Amsterdam made me wonder. Who knows, maybe I’ll start adding more words than “welkom” and “vander” to my Dutch vocabulary.