I get asked that question a lot, especially by Dutch people – even by the Dutch person who is supposed to be teaching me Dutch. At this point I have a set of pre-prepared answers I can rattle out: because I think it’s rude to live in a country and not make an effort to learn the language; because despite repeated assertions from Dutch people that everyone here speaks English, everyone in fact speaks Dutch; because I’d like to be able to understand the announcements on the train; because I thought it would help me find a job. All of these reasons are true, but at this point I don’t think they are the reasons that motivate me to keep trying.
A lot of Dutch people are able to speak English, so I can easily get by with just English. Whilst it might look good on my CV, Dutch is not the most useful language you can learn. There are just 28 million Dutch speakers in the world, compared with over a billion Chinese speakers or 399 million Spanish speakers. If I wanted to learn a language that would open up new possibilities for me, Dutch wouldn’t be my first choice.
I’ve also come to accept that I will probably never speak the language as well as I’d like to. When I first moved to the Netherlands and started taking Dutch lessons, I thought I could become a passable Dutch speaker in four years (the time it will take my partner to get his PhD). I’ve been here two years and my Dutch is still terrible. I’m learning to be okay with that and to let go of my previous notions of right or wrong. I no longer hold so tightly to the notion that the way I speak or write English is the right way and I’ve allowed some Dutchisms to make their way into my lexicon.
I’m learning Dutch because it’s fun and I don’t really need to and because I like the idea of spending the next two years or how ever long it takes to speak it imperfectly.
The idea of committing to something that will take a long time and that doesn’t really have an end point has been on my mind a lot, and a friend’s blog post recently tied all those lose threads together for me. Commenting on his experience of writing a short story and what he learned from that, he wrote: if you can find the time to sit down long enough, you can write anything you like.
A colleague at work recently left to take up a position with an environmental lobbying organisation in Brussels. Another colleague said that she could understand why someone would want to take on a job like that, because you plug away at an issue and it doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take, you just keep working at it.
In that other job I do, the one where I put lots of words together, I recently started a project that doesn’t really have an end point. I’m reading and blogging my way through the history of urban nature writing. It’s slow going – I’m a slow reader – and the list of books keeps growing all the time (which is sort of the point, that people notice and write about urban nature). But I’m completely committed to the project, however long it takes.
For a long time I felt like wanting to be a writer was a curse. If I didn’t want to be a writer I could be happy with all the other nice things in my life and there wouldn’t be this thing that is lacking – the published book. Worse, I might never get there and then I’d feel like a failure. Now, I see that being a writer is something I get to be everyday – every time I choose to sit down at my desk and write (or more often that not these days, perch my laptop on my lap and write on the train to and from work). There is no end goal, there is only me and the page and that wonderfully beguiling thing called language. Forever. For the rest of my life.
It is, of course, a cliché to say that time flies, or worse, that modern life is fast-paced. But I feel it a lot. The days go by. I wake up, take the train to work, work, take the train home, eat, sleep. Repeat. I’m always thinking about the next thing on my to do list and I find it hard sometimes to just do nothing. Even weekends seem to be packed with doing, with tidying and movement and check marks on lists.
My partner and I have a Christmas tradition where we turn the “foot” of the Christmas tree (the bit you cut off the trunk so it will drink water) into a decoration. We usually write the date on it too. This Christmas as I was unpacking the Christmas decorations I came across our Christmas tree “foot” from 2013. It said 1st Xmas in Amsterdam on it. I stopped unpacking and sat there on the floor with those words in my hands. I felt joyful and sad and nostalgic. I felt stilled. I know that the person who wrote those words wasn’t really happy, felt lost, a little bewildered and unsure. But she must have felt hopeful that this city would come to seem like home. You don’t commemorate to forget. Those words made me realise that though the days might blur into one, they are imperceptible unique. And if you wait patiently enough, if you wait a few years, you may look around and fail to recognise yourself.
I guess what I’m saying is that, yes, life is fast. Which seems like all the more reason to commit to slow things. Learn a language, write a book, write six, wait, do nothing at all. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, or whether there is a there at all. Whatever, take your time.