I wrote earlier about the linguistic competence of the Dutch, even those who have very little school-learning. My first sojourn in the Netherlands happened in the Summer of 1976: the hottest and driest Summer since WWII for much of continental Europe. I was visited on the long suffering scientists at the Institute for Plant Breeding in Wageningen as an undergraduate intern. They didn't really know what to do with me and so I was shunted about a bit between the corn (Zea mays) breeders and the potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) researchers. I was billeted in the International Agricultural Centre a rather swish hotel complex for visiting scientists and hung out with a rake of other young would-be aggies - from Indonesia, Suriname, France, Madagascar - watching the interminable footage of the Tour de France on the telly in the evenings and eating ham and cheese, pumpernickel and buttermilk (karnemelk lekker fris as the ads on the bicycle channel on TV had it) for breakfast then ham and cheese, pumpernickel and buttermilk and soup for lunch. Often and often, however, I didn't get back to the IAC for lunch because I was out in some hexacracked parched field working up a ferocious tan.
The second day I was there I went to the book shop and bought a two volume nederlands engels woordenboek (the words on the cover were all in helvetica) and a Dutch translation of The Hobbit, which I'd read a couple of times, and started to teach myself the rudiments of the local language building on a year of German in school half a decade earlier.
I spent several days out on a farm to the East of town, where my Institute had some experimental corn plots. I was shown how to rip off the silks of the female flower of the corn and sprinkle pollen on the stumps to ensure a particular genetic cross. I was then left in the top left-hand corner of the field and told to work away. It was hot and it was 'boring' but I soon got into some sort of a zone and worked steadily away. The farmer would come across every so often to see how I was doing - I think he thought it was a pretty shabby way to treat the foreign kid and was a bit sorry for me. He was the first fellow I'd met in the Netherlands who hadn't a word of English, so I was about 30 words ahead of him. He told me that he'd been a kid when the events of A Bridge Too Far occured and his father's farm had been seized by the British paratroopers and re-taken by the Germans. Very exciting for a chap and I made a point of going to the Richard Attenborough film when it came out the next year.
But being a farrrrmer, he soon started to moan about the rough deal he was getting with his corn: how the mice and the birds made off with half the crop each year. I couldn't make out what bird was the focus of his indignation - it was def'ny a bird and bigger than a hand butsmaller than a breadbox. It wasn't a pigeon (same word: duif = dove) or a rook (roek pronounced rook as boek is book) or a crow (which is onomatopeiacally kraai). Like the best monoglots he was saying the name LOUDER and it sounded like "flammser throatclearing". I suddenly had an idea to break the impasse. I thought it might be a magpie but had not the faintest idea what Gelderlanders called that bird (ekster as it happens). I reckoned it would be pretentious as well as useless to try latin: Pica pica. So I thought that we might share folk-law about the bird (1 for sorrow, 2 for joy etc) and tried "Deze vogels is 't schlecht geluk?" (is this bird bad luck?). My farmer friend was quite worked up at this point and, brushing aside my attempts at communicating through common ethnic heritage, his reply tumbled out something like "Schlechte geluk? Het is godverdomdte schlechte geluk voor de arme boer wanneer deze vervloekte vogel krijgt op zijn land" It is goddamned bad luck for the poor farmer when this cursed bird gets into his fields. None of the words he actually used appeared in my then 30 word vocabulary but I knew exactly what he meant. That evening I rootled about in my dictionaries to find (of course!) Vlaamse gaai (Flemish Jay, Garrulus glandarius); a relative of the magpie much less common in Ireland than on the continent. The g is pronounced in Dutch like an emphatic rattling CH as a hawking end of loch. Next morning early, I was back in the boondocks mutilating corn flowers and told the farmer that the English word for his pest was "Jay". He was delighted to have our previous discussion resolved. "Ja Ja, de Yay, de Yay, Ik dacht ik wist dat woord".
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