Sunday, 7 August 2011

I once spent a weekend

with a family who were Dutch migrants. I was about thirteen at the time. My paternal grandparents, with whom I would normally have stayed, were away. My maternal grandparents were going to the same event as my parents. I suppose these people offered to have me. I did not know.
We did know these people quite well and they spoke excellent English. We knew they spoke Dutch of course but I had never heard them do this in public. I am sure they would have felt this was impolite. It was much less usual to hear people speaking another language in public when I was that age.
The weekend however was another story. They were at home. They spoke Dutch. They spoke Dutch to their children and they spoke Dutch to me.
I remember curling up in the bed on Friday night and crying myself to sleep because I did not understand what was being said to me. I told myself it was only for the weekend and that my father would be picking me up on Sunday evening. I could survive that long. I was terrified of being rude without meaning to be rude.
The mother was really very kind. She knew I was frightened and unhappy and trying not to show it. I think she would have spoken English for me but her husband was insistent that Dutch was spoken at home to their two children. Their children were about eight and six at the time. Naturally they understood what was being said to them.
The language was strange. The food was strange. They had family prayers at the breakfast table. Right through the weekend their were things that were different and that made me feel uncomfortable.
I managed to get through the weekend, indeed by Sunday afternoon I understood some things being said to me.English and Dutch do have words almost in common. Nevertheless I was very relieved to see my father. How, he wanted to know, had I got on?
I let him know, as teenagers will, what I thought about my parents sending me into a situation like that. To be fair to him he had no idea what would happen. I know that now but I did not know it then. The couple had offered to have me and my parents had felt it would be rude to refuse.
We saw the parents on and off for the rest of their lives. They always spoke English in public and Dutch at home. On many occasions, even as an adult, I had to visit them to deliver something or collect something. On those occasions they would always speak Dutch to me although a translation would be forthcoming if I looked really confused.
I wondered what would happen when the husband died. I went to visit. There were people coming and going all the time. She spoke English to all but their Dutch friends. She greeted me in Dutch and hugged me tightly, told me I was another daughter. I went to help her daughter clear away some fallen apricots so people could sit under the tree.
"Your mother still speaks Dutch to me," I told her.
She smiled.
"And just like me and John you answer her in English!"


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Alison Morton said...

Very moving, Cat.

I understand why the family spoke Dutch at home; many English expats here do the same. The second generation would lose their cultural background otherwise. These children often go to English school on Saturdays to do writing, literature and general studies so that they keep their skills up and their choices open.

I've lived in three cultures, speaking only the home language. However, I had acquired some language skills beforehand.


I think the father was unnecessarily harsh not to allow some English explanation at key times. This may have triggered your enthusiasm to find out more. And they were living in an anglophone society, so the majority of contacts and interactions were bound to be in English.

Your alienation in that 48 hours has stayed with you into adulthood. Inflexibility of that kind does nobody any good.

Anonymous said...

But Alison Cat works in all sorts of languages now. I think not being able to do that was one of the things that made her want to help people communicate. Right Cat? Chris

Miriam said...

I think that's strange. We've always, as a rule, spoken English at home within the family. We now see the positive results, for the children, of having done so. BUT we never speak English to guests whose mother tongue isn't English - even if they understand it. I think it was rude and unnecessary for that family to do it to you.

Frances said...

I doubt that you would treat a visiting child who didn't speak English in such a way, Cat.

catdownunder said...

Yes Chris, I suppose it did - that and working in the nursery school for the deaf at weekends.
Alison the same thing happens here. My nephews were sent to "Greek School". They hated it and cannot read or write Greek although they can speak a little. And yes, I can work in multiple languages and read some with a dictionary to hand but I cannot speak any, just a few words and phrases - much to my shame!

catdownunder said...

Miriam, the husband was a little strange. They had to come here after WWII and I think he always wanted to go back to Holland. I believe he thought he was doing the right thing but I wrote the story out because I thought you would be interested.
No Frances, I would not. I cannot imagine almost anyone at all doing that to a child. It certainly taught me a lot though!