It has been 29 years since I lived in the Netherlands. What was it like when I first came here? The time I saw a flat land much more than I could see, heard a language with guttural sound, walked on cobblestones and felt its unevenness against my feet, and saw women in glass cubicles? It was all these and more.
Train Ride to Amsterdam
It’s a summer day---30 degrees Celsius and our family’s first trip to Amsterdam with the train. I sit by the window. Turning to my right, I see flat land and more flat land. There are wide patches of grassland with water-filled ditches surrounding them. White cows with brown or black spots are grazing. They have distended bellies. A waft of air brings a smell very familiar. My childhood days in Bontoc come to mind. During the rice planting season, men carry baskets of pig’s dung on their shoulders. Yes, it’s the smell of pig’s dung. I see a windmill. It isn’t turning. Beside it is a group of trees and two houses. One house has no windows. It must be a barn. An asphalted road leads to the houses.
I recall my early days in this country. I speak English and they speak Dutch. If I want to get around and hopefully find a job, I have to attend a language school.
The first words I learn are, Goede morgen. That’s “good morning.”
Once I tell a Dutch friend, “You invert the letters n and g in morning and come up with morgen.
“Oh no, the English invert the letters g and n in morgen and come up with morning.”
It’s my first day at the language school. Letters of the Dutch alphabet are similar to English but most are pronounced differently. I learn to pronounce the letters as they should be. Speaking some words doesn’t come easy. There are rules. Maan means moon and the accent is on aa; man means husband and the accent is on n. Then the tongue twisting part comes---the ui in huis (house) or uien (onion), spoken haus and awyen, respectively. And the g in weg (way) is pronounced from the throat. Guttural indeed.
After the language lessons, I learn enough Dutch to go to the market, grocery and department store. I’m unable to master the language though to practice my profession as a physician. The advice is for me to go through four years of medical school in a Dutch university with the medium of instruction in Dutch, of course. I decide not to study anymore.
Chico’s First Day in School
My Dutch is just sufficient for me to bring Chico, my younger son, to school on his first day. He turns four and according to the law, he has to go to pre-school.
“Goede morgen Chico, goede morgen mevrouw” (Good morning, Chico, good morning mam.”)
“Goede morgen,” we both reply.
The teacher shows us different corners of the room. A corner with puzzle boxes, another with drawing and painting materials, and one with a small play oven and cooking utensils. After going around with Chico for 10 minutes, I ask him, “May I go now?”
He starts to cry and clings to me, “Mama, I want to go with you.”
I take his hand and we walk around again. The teacher requests me to stay for half an hour more. Chico takes a seat beside another boy. Later, I ask him if I could leave. He nods his head.
When Chico comes home at 12:00 o’clock noon, I ask, “Kumusta ang iskuwela?” (How’s school?)
“Bakit ka umiyak?” (Why did you cry?)
“Kasi hindi ko naiintindihan ang sinasabi nila. (Because I can’t understand what they’re saying.”)
At home, we speak with the children in Pilipino and they reply in English.
Friday and Saturday are market days. Hurrah! I can practice my Dutch. I like market day on Friday. Many vendors sell fresh fish. There’s mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines, squid, eel and other kinds of fish. Many have just come from the freezer. The fresh fish are eels. They are in a 50 by 30 by 20 cm plastic container containing sawdust. The eels are alive, all wriggling. One climbs out of the plastic container and falls to the ground. The vendor runs after the eel, picks it up and returns it to the container.
I want to buy salmon’s head with a part of its belly still attached. That would be delicious for dinner--- sinigang na ulo ng salmon (salmon’s head in sour soup).
One day while choosing some salmon heads, a Dutch lady asks, “Mevrouw, hoe kookt u dat?” (Mam, how do you cook that?)
"Als soep.” (As soup).
Under Fives Clinic
With my level of language proficiency, I apply for a job at an Under Fives Clinic (UFC) and can work only as an assistant to the doctor and nurse. My tasks are to weigh babies from one to nine-month old, get their lengths and measure their head circumference. I note these data in the growth chart. Afterwards, I make the next appointment with the mother. When these are done, I request the mother to wait in the receiving room until the doctor or nurse fetches her and her baby. Until the babies are 14 months old, they have a schedule of check-ups and immunizations. The state subsidizes the UFC. It’s while working at these clinics that I realize how the state takes care of its citizens. It’s an investment in human resources.
The train moves on. After 30 minutes of travel, the conductor announces something in Dutch. I understand, “Amsterdam central station.” Oh! We must be near the station now.
We get off the train. Wow! This train station is huge. Outside, I look at the building again. It’s like a castle, like what I’ve seen in books.
Just outside the central station, there are boats offering Amsterdam canal cruises. We go for a one-hour boat ride. The guide announces the places we’re passing by. She speaks in Dutch, English and French. The “narrowest house” sticks in my mind. It’s one meter wide and three stories high.
We’re back on the streets and I notice many trams. I can’t help but compare Amsterdam with Manila. This city is small but the trams are used to the maximum. It’s for mass transport. Traffic flows smoothly.
We walk towards the Dam Square. It seems that’s where all people are going. Some are pulling their luggage, others are with a backpack. Some are going to the train station; others are going to the Dam Square.
We see people queuing at a store selling patat frites (potato fries.)
The children ask, “Mama, could we have some?”
I stand in the queue.
When it’s my turn, the vendor asks, Met mayo of ketchup? (With mayo [mayonnaise] or catsup?)
“One with salt and another with mayo, please.”
As long as the Dutch could make a sale, they will do all means to understand the customer’s English. They will also speak in their broken English.
“That’s two guilders,” says the young man as he hands over the patat friet in a cone-shaped paper container. (One euro is 2.2 guilders.)
Along the way, there are fast food stores---Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. I also see restaurants with foreign cuisine: British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Irish, Italian, Thai.
We reach the Dam Square. There are many birds on the ground. They flock towards the persons throwing seeds or pieces of bread. Many foreigners are busy taking pictures.
Red Light District
I recall another time I’m in Amsterdam with some friends.
“Let’s go to the red light district,” they say.
So, instead of going straight to the Dam Square, we turn left on the second block from the Central Station. As we go into this district, I see men, young and old; African, Dutch, Japanese. I hear someone speaking. He must be British. There are few women. I notice stores with different sex gadgets and videos; theaters with live sex shows. And there they are---ladies with skimpy clothes in glass cubicles. They say a visit to Amsterdam is only complete if you go to the red light district.
Coffee houses? I haven’t been to one. They’re for the young generation.
It’s getting late and time to go home. Once again in the train, I see flat land. And I’m reminded of what the Dutch usually say, “God made the world but the Dutch made Holland.”
And the language? I’ve learned to pronounce many words with a guttural sound. I’m not yet there though. There’s still that Filipino accent when I speak Dutch. It has been years of hearing people talk, listening to Dutch news and children’s shows on television, and reading newspapers and magazines. This country has become my home. Copyright©YvonneBelen25May2014
This article is a revised version of the original published in the Igorot Global Organization magazine, The Igorot, Issue #2, January 2007.
About the Author
Yvonne Belen is a Bontok Igorot from Bontoc. Mountain Province, Philippines. She was a physician and teacher in the Philippines. Presently living in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, she devotes most of her time to activities of Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE). One such activity is taking care of postings in the ICBE website: www.icbe.eu.