Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Long and winding roads 2

I drove up to Nunspeet on Sunday to preview the Spaarenhorst Conference Center, where I'll be leading anDSC03879 off-site brainstorming session with my team next week.  It was a very posh place: lovely woods, restaurant, hotel, and meeting rooms, I'm really looking forward to spending time there.  I also took advantage of the day to drive along the edge of the Veluwe to Elburg, a charming old port town with the original fortifications and city gate, the Vischpoort, still in place.

No sign of Carnivale, though: my Dutch friends tell me not to expect anyone outside on Sunday in the 'bible-belt' of north-Netherlands.

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On the way back south, I found the Ribhouse Texas, an 'authentic cowboy experience' just outside of Epe.  My friends back in the US usually associate wooden shoes and page-boy haircuts with Holland, and this was an equally fanciful recreation of the American Southwest.  Wooden Indians and pueblo blankets were everywhere: the ober wore a sheriff's badge and the rafters were filled with wagon wheels and elk horns.  The food didn't quite rise to "chuckwagon standards": the corn and potato were outstanding, the steaks were small, the ribs lacked bar-b-q sauce, and the beer was, well, Grolsch.

Still it was a fun tour through local hyperreality, to use Eco's characterization (a subject for another day...).

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The long drive gave me time to think about Nick's comments to my last post, reflecting on whether language or cultural differences were a greater challenge to 'fitting in'.  My first reaction was to say that cultural differences were harder, since almost everyone will initiate an English conversation once they've heard my approximation of Dutch.  But I also lived in England for a year (with almost no language differences), and I think that I was also less prone to trip over cultural differences than I do here.

Are the two related?

It could be argued that British culture is closer to American than Netherlanders are, but I think that the actual reason circles back around to language again.  While my direct conversations are based in English, the conversations swirling around me are all in Dutch.  Thus, there is no chance to learn by observation.

For example, the checkout clerk always asks if I'd like to buy stamps when I check out at the grocery.  But I couldn't learn about that by listening to how people ahead of me handled the question.  Instead, I accidentally bought stamps (and handed them to the surprised person behind me once I realized what I'd done).

Along my winding road, I don't make the same mistake twice, but I do have to 'learn by doing' rather than by listening.  It's a slow, error-filled process that will only resolve with time or fluency.  It's certainly more motivation for spending an hour each night on vocabulary drill and doing more conversations in Dutch with my co-workers.

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