Soon after I graduated high school in 1988, I left my family and Kenai to be an exchange student in The Netherlands, or Holland. Or Dutchlandia. Or whatever it’s called. I chose Holland mainly because all the other kids who wanted to be exchange students wanted to go to France or Germany, and I had to be different. Even so, it was hard to be that different since those were the only three countries any of us knew about. (We knew about Canada, but since that’s just Alaska with metrics, it didn’t count.)
I studied up on it beforehand, of course, and I liked what I read. Legal weed, legal hookers, legal squats. In case you don’t know, a squat is an abandoned building that’s been taken over by people from the Matrix movies. Very cool when you’re 18. In spite of this rampant liberality, however, the whole country was clean and orderly, the people were all educated and civil, there were windmills as far as the eye could see, and the whole place was just chock-full of cheese. It sounded like paradise.
I signed up through an agency called ASSE (that’s Dutch for “ass”), and was soon on my way to the bustling town of Stramproy, away down south in the province of Limburg. Actually Stramproy was a village, not a town, and it didn’t bustle so much as rustle once in a while. But it looked exactly like a Dutch village is supposed to, according to all the data I had collected from that one National Geographic I had at home.
I was taken in by the lovely Schaeken family. Do not attempt to say that name out loud unless you have already had your tonsils removed. In fact, for your safety I’ll give you a short primer on the language, which is not difficult, just dangerous. Practice by clearing your throat and choking at the same time, while pronouncing all the vowels simultaneously. If you’re up around Amsterdam you’ll also want to pinch your nose while doing this. The locals will not be fooled, nor impressed, but neither will they ridicule you. They will merely reply in English, which they speak better than you (albeit with a uniquely stupid accent). Down south where I lived they don’t speak as much English, but they also don’t have that grating twang that they do up north, so it’s a reasonable trade.
If you do find yourself in an awkward situation, which is practically guaranteed, you can break the ice by making any kind of reference to “the Dutch mountains”. Your Dutch counterpart will find this hilarious, and you will know so because they will tell you, That’s hilarious, without cracking a smile. They have one joke in Holland: “Dutch mountains”. Because the whole country is so flat, you see. It’s really funny.
My host family was typically Dutch in that exactly half of them had typical Dutch names, while the other half had names from other countries and/or fiction. My host dad was named Theo (pronounced TAY-oh), a typical Dutch name. My host mom was Irene (pronounced ee-RAY-na), a typical Dutch name. My host brother was Manolito (pronounced WHAT THE F#@K?!) I learned that shortly before Irene had gone into labor with him, she and Theo were watching that old western, High Chaparral on the telly, and when the character Manolito came on, Theo exclaimed, That’s the name for our boy! I also had a host sister named Gwendolyn (pronounced [throat clearing]-wendolyn). I never learned the origin of that one, but I surmised it might have been mom’s turn to pick names that time.
Theo worked in a factory, played soccer with the local club, and kept five sheep and a dozen homing pigeons just for fun. He also had a lazy eye and spoke exclusively in the village dialect, which pretty much ensured he and I would have many… Well, I’ll just say that from the moment we met, we were instant acquaintances, and we stayed that way the entire 10 months I lived there.
Shortly after my arrival I was treated to a tour of Theo’s workplace, a small facility where they applied enamel paint to metal appliances and things. While reserved and distant at home, Theo seemed super happy when he greeted us at the entrance. He was grinning from ear to ear and his eyes were red, watery slits. Waaait a minute, I thought, I recognize that look. He’s high as balls! Between the legal weed and the paint fumes, this looked like a fun place to work.
Irene was a hardworking housewife who made some extra scratch delivering newspapers. She spoke English well and had a lively personality with a bawdy sense of humor. Most days I’d get home from school and hang out with Irene for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and generally yukking it up. We were good buddies.
[Quick note! Back then if you were over 12 and didn’t smoke, they put you in a special class to teach you how to roll cigarettes. That way you could at least be useful to your family and friends. Very smoker-friendly society, is what I’m saying.]
I was lucky because Irene was a great cook, and let me just say one thing about Dutch cuisine: Cabbage! Also potatoes. I had dinner at other people’s houses a few times, and nobody’s boiled potatoes could hold a candle to Irene’s.
Manolito attended a culinary high school. He was going to be a chef. He had made this life commitment at age 16. In Holland this is a totally normal thing to do. He was a polite and soft-spoken kid, so naturally I pre-judged him to be a bit of a cream puff. That is until he told me about the rumbles he and his classmates would get into. With their large knives. With the kids from the mechanics school. Who fought with chains and wrenches. I made a mental note never to fuck with Manolito.
Gwendolyn was the redhead of the family, or of the country, maybe I should say. I don’t recall seeing any other gingers the whole time I was there. She was 13, sweet as could be, and blushed constantly. I sometimes helped her with her English homework, which made her blush so hard it turned her hair blond. She never thanked me for that, by the way. It’s all good, though. She taught me all the good swear words.
I went to school. Technically I could have skipped that part, since I’d already graduated back in Kenai (sneaky move, eh?). But I had no friends, and there was nothing to do in Stramproy besides hang out at the windmill with Jan van de Molen, the caretaker, and I did that like the first day. Incidentally, his name literally means John of the Windmill. He had a gigantic jet black mustache under his nose, and two more over his eyes. I’m assuming he had eyes. That’s how big his eyebrows were.
So yeah, I went to school. It was called (get ready) Philips van Horne Scholengemeenschap. Hopefully you had someone on hand with CPR skills if you read that out loud. PVHS was in the city of Weert, about 20 minutes away by bicycle, depending on how hard the wind was blowing. Holland may be flat as a pannekoek, but the wind never stops, and it’s always a headwind. That, plus you’re on your government-issued granny bike; it’s a hard ride. Like pedaling up a Dutch mountain.
I had two easy classes, art and French, and two hard classes, history and English. I didn’t have to take math; it was generally understood that that would have been a waste of everyone’s time. PE would have been the same deal if it weren’t for soccer, which is state-mandated for all bipeds. Damned socialists and their voetbal.
Art was easy because hey, I’m a natural like that. The teacher’s name was Ms. Pil, one of my favorite Dutch names. It means “pill”. Or maybe “pillow”. She was a total babe, which made it somewhat hard to concentrate, but as I’ve said, art was kind of my thing. I could keep one eye on the saggy old model and the other on sweet Miz Pill, no prob.
We took kickass field trips in art. We’d pile into a bus and head out to the National Museum or some famous spot where Van Gogh used to paint. Once Ms. Pil said, We’re going to go check out the gothic cathedral in Cologne next week, kids. Don’t forget to pack a lunch. Amazing. In Kenai we went to the landfill to draw bald eagles once. Practically just as cool.
French was easy because I already had four years of it under my belt from high school, and French is mostly attitude anyway. I had plenty of that. The teacher’s name was Mr. Aan de Boom, which means “at the tree”. Definitely in my top 10 list of names, just for the sheer randomness of it.
History was hard because in Dutch it’s called Geschiedenis, and the teacher was Mr. Hasendonckx, and both of those are impossible to say (although Hasendonckx is another top-tenner for the insane consonant string at the end, and the meaning: “rabbit tweezers”).
[Side note! Words like Geschiedenis and Hasendonckx are the reason Dutch people never get sick. With so much oral bacteria flying around every time people speak, their immune systems are practically bullet-proof.]
Mr. Hasendonckx was Belgian, and that was also a hindrance for me. You see, Belgium suffers from an identity crisis, trapped as it is between France and the Netherlands. In the area of northern Belgium where he was from, Flanders, they speak a kind of Dutch that I think is intended to out-silly the Dutch spoken up in Holland around Amsterdam. I’ve already mentioned how ludicrous the accent up there is, and I am pretty sure Flemish is an attempt to mock it by speaking it even more foolishly. I can’t describe it other than to say, imagine if Jim Carrey were a language. Anyway, I was so intrigued and amused by the sounds coming out of Mr. Hasendonckx, I couldn’t remember a damned thing about Waterloo.
English was hard because it was taught by a leprechaun named Mr. Tuinkabouter who only spoke the queen’s English and I couldn’t understand a word of it. And also, why the hell did I have to take English? Socialism, that’s why!
English was also hard because of Sandra Jansen, the prettiest girl in the whole school, who sat right next to me and kept me too tongue-tied to speak my own language. She spoke it just fine, though, and used it to talk flirty talk to me all the time. She made it obvious that she was—how you say—game, and I could make my move whenever. I never did though, due to some… reasons.
But I’ll save that sad tale for another time.