Sunday, April 29, 2012

What you mean to say is not always what you say #1

What I meant to say:

What I actually said:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cling cling cling clang clang clong clong

I grew up in a fairly musical family. My father not only plays guitar and sings but is also a local songwriter. My brother, too, is an accomplished guitarist. Heck, I even sort of slap at the strings and howl along myself from time to time. In my family, musical talent is something that is deeply appreciated. We may be amateurs ourselves, but the fact that we make the effort at all means that we feel justified in turning our noses up at those who make “music” by pushing buttons and turning knobs. Isn’t a drum-machine just cheating? When I was a kid if you scratched up one of your parents records they got pissed off. Now club DJs scratch them up on purpose and people not only pay to listen, they even dance! Many people would say that this still counts as music. But in my family, if you don’t hit it, pluck it or blow through it, it ain’t music. Period. Even the piano we regard with suspicion. I mean really. I see your feet going up and down on the pedals, but this does not distract me from the obvious fact that your “playing” actually just involves pushing buttons. And anyone can do that. Try keeping time while a room full of drunken fishermen sing “I Saw the Light” in the wrong key. Then get back to me.

Given the total snobbery I harbour regarding any form of pseudo-music, you can imagine how much I love the automated barrel organ that gets pushed up and down the streets of Middelburg every market day. Now, I’ve nothing against barrel organs per se. I mean, in the old days there was even a certain charm about them. The organ grinder wore a bow tie and had a handlebar moustache, its tips neatly waxed. He dressed in a crisp white shirt and a vest and maybe a top hat. He always looked vaguely exotic. Sometimes there would even be a little monkey (also wearing a bow tie) who the organ-grinder had trained to dance along. Fun was had by all, except perhaps by the monkey.

My local organ grinder wears a cracked leather jacket and faded jeans and looks exactly like Lurch from the original The Addams Family movie. There is no monkey, and, since the barrel organ in question is a push-button affair, this organ grinder doesn’t even grind. He’s more of an organ button-pusher. He might as well walk around town with a large multi-colored CD player on wheels.

I am convinced that my organ grinder recognizes me by now from my scowl, which he has had the pleasure of seeing twice a week for the past six years. Indeed, secretly I think he shakes his stupid little begging cup extra hard and extra close to my face whenever I walk by him, seething with my particular combination of musical superiority and irritation.

And I’m sure it’s not just me. The only people who do seem to genuinely enjoy his push-button music box are toddlers. And let’s face it, they don’t know any better. I’m convinced the rest of the adults would be only too happy to see him eat his cup.

The barrel organ is not a sexy instrument. How many women would still have fallen for Elvis back in the day if his instrument of choice had been the barrel organ? When was the last time you saw a leather-wearin’, Marlboro-hackin’, motorbike-ridin’ stud hit the pavement with a barrel organ slung over his shoulder? Yes, you may be a two-wheeling chick-magnet, but take up the barrel organ and pretty soon you’ll be towing that sucker behind you down the highway actually repelling the opposite sex for miles around. The barrel organ is so very un-rock n’ roll.

It’s bad enough that I have to listen to the racket of the automated noise machine twice a week, but they can’t even load the thing up with barrel-organ-appropriate music. Thursday I was in town doing some shopping and as I walked past the organ, Lurch's cup of coins clickety clacking in my face all the while, it started playing a version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ that seemed so incongruous to me I wanted to pay just to make it stop. I don’t even like ‘Thriller’ much, but I still think it’s disrespectful to the memory of Michael Jackson, or any musician whose numbers were not originally composed for bagpipes or cow bells, to play their songs on this contraption. I mean, just try to imagine how it sounded. Words almost cannot do it justice. Cling cling cling clang clang clong clong, Cling cling cling clang clang clong clong. Now moonwalk.

On the way home, with the memory of the disturbing Jackson tribute still fresh in my memory, the carillon player in the church bell tower treated us to a rousing rendition of ‘What do you do with a drunken sailor?’ I’ll tell you what you do. Put him in front of an organ grinder with a Michael Jackson penchant. That’ll sober him up.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

One ear and a banana split, please

Photo courtesy of TheCulinaryGeek, on Flickr.
My Dutch is not fluent, but after six years of practice, it’s pretty passable. I hardly ever have problems making myself understood anymore. If I say “I am lazy” hardly anyone thinks I have said “I am lukewarm.” When I tell people I used to live in a rental property, no one thinks I used to live in a whorehouse. My grammar might be a little rusty at times, and my pronunciation still marks me out as a foreigner, but I seem to be able to negotiate my daily life in Dutch with a moderate degree of success.

So it’s strange to me how every time I try to buy an ice cream in Middelburg I run into comprehension problems. A few days ago, on our way home from walking our dog, my husband and I decided to stop by our favourite ice cream place for a couple of cones. I asked for two scoops: one white chocolate and one cookie. The girl scooped up the white chocolate then placed a big scoop of something green on top of it. “Is this cookie?” I asked her. “No, It’s pistachio,” she said.

When someone mishears me these days I usually just put it down to my accent. But there’s no way that “cookie” will ever sound like “pistachio” in any accent of English or Dutch.
I would dismiss this as an isolated incident were it not for the fact that last year I had a similar problem with a different employee at the same ice cream place. On this occasion I approached the counter where a dopey-looking kid was taking orders and told him I would like a cone with two scoops. He looked at me with a deeply troubled face and said “You want an ear?”

Now, admittedly the word for “cone” in Dutch sounds a little bit like the Dutch word for ear. But seriously, even if I did totally garble the word, shouldn’t your powers of deduction lead you to the conclusion that I probably want a tasty dairy treat and not a sawn-off part of your head? I haven’t seen this guy back at the ice cream counter so far this year. Perhaps he got fired after trying to make a banana split out of a colleague’s leg. I only know that I am seriously considering investing in an ice-cream machine.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TV Guy

Photo courtesy de tv van willemijn

Two years ago at the end of a holiday in Tuscany, my husband and I were at the airport in Florence waiting to catch our flight back to the Netherlands. All appeared normal until our plane arrived at the departure gate, after which our flight status promptly changed from “On Time” to “Delayed.” No problem, we thought. It’s not like we had an important meeting back home. We were just on holiday. We could wait. And anyway, the plane was already parked right outside the gate, so really, how long could it be? They were probably just cleaning it, we thought, or re-stocking it with tasty snacks for our return journey. Two airline employees were busy tapping on computers and talking on phones behind the little kiosk near the gate, and I expected any moment now one of them would turn on the mic poking out over the top of the kiosk and make an announcement concerning our flight. Until then, my husband and I, being of the “there’s nothing we can do” camp when it comes to things like this, decided to simply find somewhere to sit and enjoy the opportunity to do some reading.         
I was reading the Divine Comedy (really, I was. I’m not trying to impress you. But if it makes you feel better, I stopped after Inferno. Once you leave the inner-city of hell and get to the Afterlife suburbs, where all the well-behaved people keep their celestial hedges neatly trimmed, it gets quite boring.). My husband had a book open too, and we sat quite happily for half an hour until a young boy and his mother approached the area where we were seated. The boy sat down in the vacant seat next to my husband. His mother turned and walked off. It was as if she was trying to give her son away and thought if she just left him with this bookish, childless couple he would get a wholesome upbringing as well as an education in Italian literature. We soon realized that the real reason the boy had sat down next to us was because we had taken up residence next to the only electricity outlet in the whole departure lounge, and Mom, knowing what’s good for everyone, decided it was best not to let Junior’s Game Boy battery die.           
Once we recovered from our shared fear that the child might try to talk to us (he didn’t), we could ignore him, and even enjoy the feeling that we were a bit like Aunt Celia and Uncle Roger, hanging out with the little tike while his parents took a much-needed breather. Sure, we were happy to help. That’s just the kind of people we were.
Meanwhile Mom had gone back to her seat. I glanced over at her and that’s when I saw him.
“Look,” I said to my husband, nudging him with my elbow. “It’s that guy from TV.”
“What guy from TV?” my husband asked looking annoyed at having been disturbed from his gripping history of wax painting in the fourteenth century. I pointed in the direction of the man Mom had just sat down next to. He was rifling through one of the bags at Mom’s feet so I guessed that as well as being a Dutch TV celebrity he was also either a particularly brazen thief or else her husband.
“Don’t point,” my husband said, slapping at my hand.
“If I don’t point how will you know where to look?” My husband sighed but his eyes followed to where I’d just pointed.
“See,” I said. “Isn’t he some sports presenter?” I don’t actually watch any sports programs but I do occasionally flick past them looking for something good.
My husband squinted. My husband’s eyesight is reliable up to three metres in front of him. After that the world beyond him is a blurry approximation. “Are you sure?” he said.
“Do you know who I mean?” I asked, getting excited that not only were we in the same room with a celebrity, we were actually sitting right next to his son. We were practically family. I pictured us hanging out at barbecues in TV Guy’s posh celebrity backyard.
“Do you mean Tom Egbers?” my husband said.

“If Tim Edwards is a sports guy on TV then yes, that’s who I mean.”

“Tom,” my husband said. “Never mind. It might be him. I’m not sure. This guy looks a bit different.”
“That’s because he’s not in an electric box in our living room. But I’m sure it’s him.” And I was sure. I may not be good with names, but I have an uncanny ability to remember faces. This, coupled with the fact that I watch too much TV, means that if you’re on TV, I will recognize you, even if you’re just the lady selling the Ahh Bra on Tell Sell. TV Guy was definitely someone who I had seen before as sports-related pixels.
During all of this TV Guy’s son sat next to us completely oblivious to our existence, let alone our conversation. His fingers continued their repetitive tickety-tack across the console of his Game Boy.
“He’s probably coming back from [insert name of sporting event here],” my husband said. I thought how glamorous TV Guy’s life must be, getting paid to travel all over Europe, and not even to actually participate in sporting events, but just to watch others participate in them and then tell us back in Holland all about it. As the significance of our brush with stardom began to sink in, my husband and I did what all self-respecting people do when they notice celebrities, which is to pretend we don’t recognize them. If TV Guy even so much as moved his head in our general direction (which he did fairly often since his nine-year-old son was sitting next to us), we planted our eyes firmly on our books, no longer actually reading but wondering if TV Guy was noticing what a good influence we were having on his child by being role models for literacy.

Of course, after a while the initial excitement of having spotted TV Guy wore off. He wasn’t even doing anything particularly interesting. He wasn’t on his phone making hurried calls to his manager or top TV executives or his celebrity friends. He wasn’t scribbling busily in his agenda, or sending emails to Princess Maxima on his diamond-encrusted iPad. He was just flipping through a magazine. It wasn’t even a sports magazine. Eventually, bored of non-interesting TV Guy, who was clearly not holding up his end of the bargain since he was making no effort whatsoever to behave like a real celebrity, my husband and I went back to actually reading our books instead of just staring at the pages blankly imagining what we would say when invited on TV by TV Guy to talk about sports with him. Meanwhile we patiently waited to be told when our flight would leave.

Another hour went by. We still had not been given any further information concerning our flight. The plane was still parked outside, but no one was going in or out of it. There was no activity around the plane on the ground either. It just sat there on the tarmac, taunting us. A few of the more bored Dutch passengers had by now approached TV Guy and were making conversation with him. Hah! we thought. You might be talking to him, but we have his kid.
Then, suddenly, TV Guy was on his feet. He was looking at us. No, wait, he was walking toward us. Oh shit oh shit. He was coming straight at us. What if he asked me something? I just knew if he did that I would fumble my Dutch, or else go silent out of fear of fumbling my Dutch and end up looking like a mute Dante-reading savant. Think of something clever to say, dammit! Think, think!

TV Guy stopped in front of us. Oh no, I thought. Here it was, my first brush with Dutch celebrity and I was going to blow it. I decided the mute genius option would be the best one to go with if asked any questions that did not require simple yes-no answers. I was on the brink of a pre-emptive nervous tic to complement my performance when TV Guy smiled at my husband and I and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” we said back. Then TV Guy knelt and said something to his son, who got up and unplugged his Game Boy and the two walked back over to where TV Guy’s wife was sitting.
Our flight should have left at 10.30. By now it was after 14.00 and not only were we still sitting here, but we still had no idea what was going on. The information screens continued to show our flight status as "Delayed." No announcements were made about when or even if we could expect to board. My husband and I began to wonder if we would get back to Amsterdam in time to make our train. If we didn’t we would have no choice but to stay overnight in Amsterdam and catch a train out the following morning.     

Then we watched as TV Guy, a small posse of disgruntled Dutch travelers behind him, approached the little kiosk near the gate and spoke to one of the airline employees, a woman wearing so much eye make-up I’m pretty sure even my husband could see it. TV Guy swept his hand behind him over the crowd of waiting and uninformed travelers. In return the airline lady nodded and raised one hand out in front of him like she was a crossing guard and he was a speeding vehicle. My husband and I were too far away to hear what was said so it was like watching mime; we had to interpret the significance of each move for ourselves. The crowd behind TV Guy grew larger. I expected at any moment for them to break into a song of rebellion aka Les Miserable, complete with stick-waving. But instead what happened was that TV Guy stuck his hand out and the airline lady shook it, and then everyone sat down. The airline lady whispered something to her colleague behind the kiosk, who turned on the microphone and announced that our flight had been delayed because of technical problems. A new part was needed for one of the engines. That part was on its way and would be here soon. Our new estimated departure time was 16.45. Oh, and we were all entitled vouchers for the restaurant upstairs.

Never mind that all we had to choose from in the restaurant were a few stale sandwiches and some pain au chocolat obviously left over from breakfast. Never mind that two cheese baguettes, some watery soft drinks and a banana cost more than the food voucher was worth. Never mind that in the end we did miss our train and had to stay the night in a hotel in Amsterdam at an additional cost to us of €85. TV Guy had saved the day. He had stood up for the rights of Dutch people everywhere. Okay, maybe not. But he had stood up for the rights of Dutch people in the departure lounge of the Florence airport one summer day in 2010. Celebrities were nice, my husband and I decided. They were just regular people, like you and me. Only you and me didn’t do this did we? TV Guy Did. Thanks TV Guy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Like America, but with more fur

Photo by Public Domain Photos, on Flickr
I’m from Canada, but I’ve lived outside of Canada for about ten years now. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, and I tell them I’m from Canada, they’re response is “Oh yeah? I have a cousin/uncle/grandmother/sister who lives in Canada.” And that’s my cue to say “Oh yeah? Whereabouts?” so they can then say “Toronto.”

I never quite know what to say next. The fact is that this last bit of information has given us absolutely nothing further to talk about. I’ve been to Toronto once in my whole life, when I was nine years old. I have almost no memory of the trip except that my parents took me to the movies to see Crocodile Dundee 2. So unless cousin Gary was the usher, I never met him. Which is a shame, because the person I was talking to will undoubtedly have been under the illusion that our conversation can now progress smoothly from one fascinating coincidence to the next, until we discover, to our mutual delight and amazement, that his cousin/uncle/grandmother/sister is not only my parents’ neighbourhood drycleaner, but possibly also my own long lost cousin/uncle/grandmother/sister.

Because that’s how people think of Canada, isn’t it? Intellectually you might know that it’s the second biggest country in the world, but emotionally you can’t help feeling it’s just one long street of log cabins. Like America, but with more fur. Or like Russia, but without all the pesky mafia.

The other thing people think of when they think of Canada is nature – trees and bears and waterfalls and the like. And a lot of people seem to think that because of all this nature, we Canadians must be very good at doing all manner of outdoorsy things. So people are understandably disappointed when they find out I can’t actually catch live salmon using only my teeth. I explain that yes, I grew up in Canada, but my family was pretty privileged. We even lived in large-ish permanent dwellings all year long, and although we did have to travel for our food to the hunting ground we liked to call the Atlantic Superstore, we were hardly ever threatened by neighbouring tribes.

Now I live in the Netherlands, which, to any native English speaker sounds like the exact name you would apply to the back end of nowhere. Or a country populated solely by magical elves. Which is ironic because the Netherlands is a country of giants. More tall people live in the Netherlands than anywhere else in the world. I’m not one of these people, but luckily my husband is, and he sometimes lets me sit on his shoulders, where I have a good view of all the wooden shoes and cheese.