Wednesday, August 26, 2009


In December I thought I might go to Holland. I started learning Dutch through the media. Although that part of my trip fell through, I decided to keep up with the language and test my theories of language learning. I am a teacher and Spanish interpreter, who is forever in search of a job.

Before leaving it seemed necessary to do some reading. I started with language books from the library. For learning any language, British books are the worst. One book provided a lot of laughs with such useful phrases as, "Don't talk to me like a schoolmaster! Do I look like a schoolmaster?" I did five chapters worth of exercises in a book by a guy from Holland.

From there, it was time to get some real content. I started a search for Dutch authors. I thought that Geert Mak's De Eeuw van Mijn Vader (My Father's Century) would be a good place to start. Wikipedia said that he was a journalist. Reporters usually write in an easy to read contemporary way. I was expecting a short overview of the 20th century in the Netherlands that would be easy to read.

Geert Mak is Mr. Vocabulary. Often searches for words yield "Geen resultaat" (No results.) in Van Dale's online dictionary. Often his sentences are 10 lines long. Sometimes the words he uses are part of Van Dale's professional edition. I search for words in Google and also use The New Routeledge Dutch Dictionary.

One problem with books made in Europe is that they fall apart if you actually read them. My 400 year anniversary edition of Don Quixote from Spain was in pieces by the time I finished it. Similarly, my Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, is also falling apart. I had to send my first copy of my Dutch dictionary back, because it too fell apart. My second copy is holding up better, but we'll see for how long.

Most of this blog will be about Geert Mak's book. I will also report on other Dutch media, which I follow through podcasts. The blog will most likely end when I finish the book.

Some general comments:

The Dutch media presents a self-image of the old Dutch stereotype. People are calm and businesslike. Conformity is a given. With that in mind, I wonder how Amsterdam happened. The Netherlands seems like an unlikely place to put the vice capital of Europe. Sure it's a port, but not all ports are like that.

The story of Santa Claus there is pretty interesting. At Christmastime I heard all sorts of songs about Spain. I couldn't figure it out. Using English sources, I found out that Sinterklaas chills in Spain, until coming to the Netherlands with Black Pete to visit all the good children. I suppose there's more to do in Spain then in the North Pole.

The book so far:

I'm on page 91. I'm reading ISBN 90 450 0127 6, in case anyone wants to follow along.

Right now Mak is describing the 1920s. It is very interesting to read about world events from a perspective I knew nothing about. For example, radio came to the Netherlands in a way that aligned with the 3 tribes Mak describes: Catholics, Protestants and Socialists. KRO, VPRO and other media powerhouses endure to this day.

One major problem Mak has is very common with his generation. He can't stand religion. As a result, he beats the Dutch Reformed Church to death. It was through Mak's book that I noticed this problem. I grew up in the US, just behind the same generation. They always had and still have opinions against religions I know well. Mak's book made me see his generational bias, because I have never had contact with the Dutch Reformed Church and have no opinion about it. In particular, the fundamentalist wing, with which his family broke away around 1900, bothers him. Consequently, all roads lead back to Abraham Kuyper. It's really distracting.

I was not aware that the Netherlands was neutral and made money during WWI. Mak points out that 19th Century thought wasn't swept away as it was in other countries. There wasn't a Lost Generation, and the ground wasn't fertile for Fascism or Communism.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Maks were in the sailmaking business. It was a tenuous existence. The Netherlands was like descriptions I have seen of Portugal in much of the 20th Century, a backward place with lots of poor people and a big empire far away.

My goal is passive comprehension of the Dutch language. It's about reading and listening. There are a few Dutch festivals in Southern California, but not much else.

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