This was one of those times I dreaded (there have been many) when the reality of living in a foreign country and not having a complete command of the language can cause undue anxiety and stress.
I sat in the bright new waiting area of the eye department of a large hospital in The Hague. It was not the hospital expats would usually be steered towards, this was the place my optician insisted I go as it had, in her opinion, the best eye surgeons of any local hospital.
It wasn’t quite so geared up for the 50,000 or so foreigners from all over the world living in The Hague. For most expats the common language is English, although it may be their second or third language – fifth or sixth for some.
I stared at the clip board and questionnaire attached to it with mounting horror. Being typically Dutch this wasn’t one sheet for basic information, this was a six page dossier delving into every aspect of my medical history.
Some linguistic background here.
The English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, (which I am more than happy to accept as a world authority) has 616,500 words. Strange it is such an exact amount, but there you are.
This is the language I grew up with, speak, write and dream in. I understand the nuances, the colloquialisms and accept there can be five words for the same thing but each will have a different tone, hue or emotional response.
The Dutch language on the other hand has 240,000 words according to the Dikke van Dale (pronounced Dicka van Darla, got to love it) the official Dutch dictionary.
This was why I naïvely believed I would get to grips with Dutch – half a million fewer words than English, how hard could it be to learn the language?
Fewer words maybe, but an equal capacity for, and understanding of, language – the Dutch use one word but it will have a different meaning depending on the context, pronunciation, position in a sentence, or the angle of the sun on any given day.
I sat with my questionnaire to be completed, in Dutch, before seeing my eye specialist, and no-one around with a working knowledge of English beyond the social niceties. Despite my blind panic I’d figured out most of the questions, but several had me confused and one in particular was causing me grief.
Here and now in my defence, I would like to point out I was in a highly anxious state.
The procedure ahead involved a long needle going into my eye, and before anyone starts rolling their eyes at my pathetic level of squeamishness and points out that obviously anaesthetic would be involved, I’d like to make it clear the needle WAS the anaesthetic. All I’d be given before that were a few measly drops of something cold and stingy, which would continue to sting – I know because I had been warned.
That was all to come. I was still pondering question 50. There was a word, obviously put together with another, which I couldn’t figure out.
The start of the question was ‘Do you have… borstziekte?’
I had no idea whether I did or not. I focused on the first part of the word – borst – and got stuck. Borst is the Dutch word for breast. What did breasts have to do with eye, or more especially, cataract surgery? Was this a question for both sexes or just females? I stalled on the possibilities.
In my panic I defaulted to past medical questionnaires involving breasts – the mammogram. There was always the, ‘do you have breast implants?’ question, therefore that must be the meaning here.
Frankly, I was bemused why this had any relevance to having cataracts removed. That I was the youngest in the eye clinic by at least 30 years only added to my confusion. (I put this rather annoying failure of my eyes down to living in bright climates for a long time rather than any physical or genetic deterioration).
I wondered idly how many of the senior patients in the waiting room this might apply to, and whether breast implants had even been invented when the elegant Grande Dames around me were in their prime. Which I rapidly calculated would probably have been around the Second World War. I liked to think they may have had other things on their minds around that time, like survival, rather than worrying whether their breasts were perky enough.
I sighed. It was pointless struggling any further, I needed help.
I stood in line to speak with the intimidating, bespectacled, large bosomed receptionist. I had no doubt implants weren’t something she’d ever worried about. Even with my fuzzy eyesight I could she was a formidable person and wasn’t taking any prisoners. I started running my question through my head
‘Pardon, kan u me helpen? Ik begrijp deze vraag niet’ ‘Excuse me, can you help me? I don’t understand this question’.
Beyond that limited introduction I intended to direct my gaze at the questionnaire and illustrate my point with hand gestures. The prospect for success was not good. I realised this could be a tricky, and once again I’d found myself at the head of a line of people who would no doubt find the whole debacle of great amusement.
It was my turn. Her English was as good as my Dutch. I pointed to the question, she smiled and answered – I had no clue. I outlined a Marilyn Monroesque figure with my hands, emphasising the upper part, and my smaller one. She looked as if she might reach under her desk for the panic button. There was a stifled guffaw from behind me in the line. This was par for the course these days and had happened so many times of late I ignored it.
I tried desperately to think of the word for implants and decided to anglicise the Dutch.
I pointed emphatically to the question on the sheet and said, ‘borst implaten?’ to the receptionist, hopefully with enough upward inflection in my voice to ensure it was understood as a question referring to the questionnaire, not her anatomy.
Her expression was paralysed for a second and I sensed the line behind me catch its breath. Her face cracked into the biggest smile and she roared with laughter, followed by the hyenas behind me. I was so glad I’d enlivened the afternoon for everyone.
She shook her head while trying to control her giggles and called over a young intern to help me, presumably the only person around who could speak Engels.
She was delightful, and explained respectfully that no, the question did not relate to implants, but chest illnesses. It seems that as well as meaning ‘breast’ borst also means ‘chest’. My apologies were abject, I explained why I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion, and blamed my appalling language skills.
She responded by saying she thought it was a waste of time for foreigners to learn Dutch – most of the natives had no clue about grammar, construction or even how to speak it correctly themselves. This information was gratefully received at the time, but I’m sure it was only said to salve my mortified feelings.
Meanwhile the hyenas had dispersed, but I knew they were savouring the moment they could regale their tale of the crazy foreign woman and her breasts to their families over dinner.
I found a hidden corner, completed the questionnaire and then sidled back to the reception desk to hand it in. I was met by broad smiles and told to go to another waiting area.
I sat back with relief, another hurdle jumped, one more embarrassment survived. Now the only thing left to deal with was that needle the size of Texas coming straight for the whites of my eyes…
How the English Approach Language Learning: Learning the Lingo Part I
Raunchy Daffodils and Randy Tulips: Learning the Lingo Part III
I laughed out loud throughout this enjoyable piece. I am sure most expats would agree that tackling a medical questionnaire past naam, adres and sex (no Dutch word for sex, must be our word) is definitely braver than cataract surgery. Do hope your eyes have “come into focus” to continue to enjoy life and write such wonderful prose.
Love. This. Post. Howled, absolutely howled!
I felt your pain, I have been to that hospital, visited that desk and filled out similar forms, all in the first few months of living here when Dutch was so foreign to me. I hope the procedure went well for you. Heather wondered why I was laughing out loud as well and I shared the borstzeikte with her and she knew it meant breast sickness right away. (Five years of classes paying off)
Brilliant… and my family wants to know what on earth I am laughing out loud about…