Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Johannesburg: Perceptions about the Netherlands

When I came home after living in Europe for 3 months, I had expected many questions and interrogations by my fellow South Africans regarding everyday life in the Netherlands.
I had expected questions about the food, the weather, the people.
I had anticipated telling funny stories about communication mishaps and missed trains.
But I had not foreseen this.

South Africans have an incredibly distorted view of life in the Netherlands!
The questions I have been asked have left me speechless and quite frankly, immensely amused. Who would have thought these would be just as more entertaining than questions being asked about South Africa!

It was very difficult to pick my favourites, but I have managed to identify the top 5 incredulous questions asked by South Africans about life in the Netherlands:

Question 1:
What's it like living in Amsterdam?

I wouldn't know. Why don't you ask someone who actually lived there?

I lived in Maastricht, people!
A city with 120 000 inhabitants in the province of Limburg, in the Southern part of Netherlands, 200 km from Amsterdam.

Maastricht (South) and Amsterdam (North)

I realise that not everyone has had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, but South Africans very much believe that Amsterdam = the Netherlands. This could not be further from the truth.

Although Amsterdam is an incredible city, there is so much more to see and do in the Netherlands, especially in the South: Wonderful cities and towns with castles, caves, green meadows and rivers. Beautiful Maastricht with it's picturesque river and lively music flowing into the streets.

Question 2:
Are the Dutch very tall?

For some strange reason no one wanted to stand still whenever I had smartly cornered them and stealthily approached, measuring tape and height chart clutched in hand.

You do see more tall people in the Netherlands. And refreshingly, not a single random stranger in the Netherlands had asked me how tall I was, as opposed to in South Africa where I was greeted by customs with: "Eish! How tall are you?" and only as a vague afterthought "Oh yes... passport please."

According to this article, the Netherlands has the tallest average height for males above the age of twenty (1.81 m on average). South Africa is 52th on the list with an average height of 1.70 m. 
So yes, the Dutch are tall, and clearly less obsessed about it.

Question 3:
Have you joined a spinning class?

Why would I pay money to pretend that I'm doing something, when I can actually do it? Outside. For free!

In South Africa we get into our cars and drive to the gym to go and sit on a stationary bicycle while someone plays upbeat music and shouts military-style insults at us. We do this because it is the only place were the crazy drivers of Johannesburg won't flatten us like pancakes without batting an eye. Johannesburg is sadly not a cycling-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and, at times, motorist-friendly city.

In contrast, everyone in Maastricht owns a bicycle and very few people a car. Maastricht has cycle lanes, traffic lights specially dedicated to bicycles, and bridges with little ridges so that you can push your bicycle up the incline.
Besides, what could be more fun, exciting and challenging than cycling in a skirt and high heels, while balancing an umbrella in one hand and your weekly groceries in the other?

Cycle-Friendly Maastricht

Question 4:
Does everyone smoke weed all day long?

... Mmm... Umm... Sorry... What was the question?

It is widely known that drugs can be legally bought in the Netherlands, and in cities like Amsterdam you will find around 700 coffee shops where drugs are sold to foreigners due to the economic boost these sales provide.
In Maastricht though, even though coffee shops exist, cannabis cannot be sold to foreigners.

Amsterdam Coffee Shops

Question 5:
Are you fluent in Dutch yet?

Are you fluent in Zulu yet?

This might come to a shock to many Afrikaans-speaking and most English-speaking South Africans (especially those who fondly refer to Afrikaners as Dutchmen): Afrikaans and Dutch is not the same language.

Let's take a very basic sentence to describe a nice weekend:
Afrikaans: "Ek het 'n baie lekker naweek gehad."
Dutch: "Ik had een fijn weekend."
Can you identify one resembling word in the two sentences?
No? Because it is two different languages!

Hearing Dutch for the first time is like trying to catch raindrops with a sieve. The words come pouring down on you so fast that, while trying to catch a single word, you're missing the entire sentence. The words seem frustratingly familiar, but you have no idea what is being said and while you are contemplating this, you're standing there in silence with a bemused frown on your face looking like an idiot. 
Just to top it all, words like "verskoon my?" and "ekskuus?" don't exist. You have to use "wat zeg jij / u?" instead to have the sentence repeated.

The good news for Afrikaans-speakers, is that after a month you can hear the rain clouds rolling in and you start catching every 10th raindrop, which quickly becomes every 5th one - enough to be able to fill in the blanks. You realise that reading is easier than listening, but it can still be very confusing at times and misreading a word can completely change the meaning of a sentence. If the "nu" in "kom nu binne" is interpreted as "nie" (not) as opposed to "nou" (now), you might find yourself left out in the cold. Literally.

So, no, I do not speak Dutch fluently (yet). I try to communicate in short, straightforward Dutch (or rather Afri-Dutch) sentences. Sometimes it works, but often I am met with a frown and an "excuse me?" in English. 

Over time my Afri-Dutch will hopefully turn into proper Dutch. But for now, in South Africa, I'll be speaking as much Afrikaans and English as I can fit into a day.

Even if it means I will have to answer hilarious and ridiculous questions.
Because at least I can understand them.

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