February, and those fragile signs that winter is finally drawing to a close and spring is just around the corner.
Spending time outdoors walking the Archster I’m perhaps more aware than most of the changing seasons – when the first snowdrops appear and where, the first tentative buds on bushes and trees, softer hues in the daylight and the scurried movement of tiny woodland creatures in the dried leaves from last Fall.
My first winter here after the warmth, glorious blue winter skies and dazzling light of New Orleans was pretty grim.
One pleasure in the gloom of January and February that dismal year was walking past the local flower shop and seeing the rainbow hues of the new season’s tulips, after months of subdued winter foliage. A whispered promise of the longer and brighter days ahead.
After Dutch class I would wander down the wet Langstraat, clutching a warm coat to my frozen body as I battled arctic winds under a leaden sky, and treat myself to a bunch (or three) of brilliant yellow tulips. In the winter gloom their colour seemed unnaturally intense and bright.
Yellow and green have always been symbolic of spring for me. Growing up in England I would look for those sprouting tender green shoots of daffodils pushing through the earth, watching them grow and bud until they exploded in a riot of colour. It was a joy to watch their heads dancing in the slightest breeze, nodding and chatting and so obviously jubilant to be above the ground and heralding in the spring.
During our years in New Orleans my heart would ache for those vivacious daffodils, I missed their gaiety and brilliance. Now, of course I miss the swaying palms, vibrant crepe myrtles and heavy-scented gardenias of Louisiana. Guess that’s just the way I am.
To see a splash of brilliant yellow on a bone chilling, dark day in the Netherlands soothed my soul and lifted my spirits – they may have been tulips not daffodils, but what the heck.
The flower shop man was always a hearty soul, pausing to nod and occasionally wink at his customers as they wandered past his shop, all in a harmless, non-threatening way. Usually because his wife was there keeping an eye on him.
Each week I would practise my basic Dutch and ask him the names of the flowers or colours if I was unsure. He was patience itself – January and February were obviously slow months and there were never many people around that early in the day. Yellow was the colour I wanted for my flowers and it was this innocent request that caused him great hilarity.
Yellow in Dutch is geel.
The g is that awful letter pronounced h along with that guttural throat rasp so evocative of the Dutch language. It causes a lot of stress for anyone learning Dutch, me among them.
So geel (or gele in some contexts) is pronounced hale (as in hale and hearty) but sounds like hgchgch-hale.
Not quite so straightforward then.
On one particular morning after a gruelling Dutch lesson with Dorien, my brain was surrounded by an impenetrable fog and completely disconnected from my mouth, but I was determined to persevere.
‘Hebt u gele tulpen?’
‘Do you have any yellow tulips?’
Obviously he had buckets of them but I wanted to do this properly.
His smile broadened and he asked me to repeat myself. I got flustered. What had I done wrong? It must have been that first letter, that darn guttural h – it always seemed to make the Dutch smile when a foreigner tried to pronounce it. I tried again.
He tried hard to suppress a laugh and I began to feel stupid, not good for my fragile self-esteem in the language department. I pointed at the sunny blooms.
“Wat deze kleur in Engels is?” “What colour is this in English?”
I was beginning to doubt my very basic vocabulary.
“Geel, mevrouw” he beamed. Okay, so it was the right word then. I repeated it back to him. He repeated it back to me. The exchange went on for several minutes with me getting more frustrated, and his grin getting larger, with each exchange.
Maybe in an attempt to pronounce the first letter of the word correctly I had screwed up the last few. Hell, there were only four letters in this word, how hard could it be?
Did my hale sound more like heil (as in Hitler) or was I mis-hearing the man? I tried one last time and the poor guy had to look away coughing to control his hysteria.
Mortified I gave up, pointed to my purchases, paid and was escorted from the shop by the grinning shopkeeper. As he waved an enthusiastic goodbye he gave me a hearty wink with a flick of his head and a click of his tongue. For whatever reason I’d obviously made his morning.
I spent the week wondering how I’d screwed up this time. Whatever I’d done I knew the flower man hadn’t been laughing at me, he wouldn’t have been that unkind, but I was confused. When the next Dutch lesson came around I explained my confusion to Dorien and asked why I’d been the source of such amusement.
‘How did you pronounce it, Jane?’
‘Well, I thought I was saying hale but I’m wondering… ‘
Her lips twitched, she roared with laughter and banged her hands on the desk, finishing the sentence for me, ‘ …if you were you were saying heil?’
I nodded, totally bemused. Wiping her eyes she explained that by changing the pronunciation ever-so-slightly I was saying a completely different word.
Instead of asking the flower man for yellow flowers, I’d been standing in his shop for over half an hour discussing the beauty of randy tulips and how much I missed the raunchiness of English daffodils – not to mention the sauciness of creamy lilies or the downright horniness of winter jasmine.
All I can say is if this is amusing then the Dutch have serious humour issues. And obviously they do as I mentioned this to a Dutch girlfriend who fell apart immediately I recounted the tale to her.
How was I to know? Yet another subject not discussed in Dutch class.
I mentioned this to Harry who rolled his eyes in mortification and asked how I could NOT have known something so basic. Perhaps because, unlike teens, adults don’t feel the need to look up dubious words in the Dutch/English dictionary. Perhaps we should.
The flower man continues to smile and wink whenever he sees me, but I try and stay aloof and if I ever want yellow flowers I point vaguely in their general direction and keep my mouth firmly closed.