English Is Mine

This is our English. Brought to us by Playmobil, Intertoys, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Superman and Batman, Michael Jackson, Rocky Balboa, the internet, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, advertisements, clothing labels, Coca-Cola, Big Macs, Nike Air Max, cars, hotel signs, warnings, et cetera, et cetera. Clear and without the secret in-crowd nuances. Every controversial word we use has been pointed out—called out? You should try it: speaking world-English. No hidden or fuzzy meanings. Democratic. Accessible to all. Eat it or starve behind your own bastions, you dialect-speakers. But hé, I don’t care.

Dutch people, in live-action Dutchness

Photograph by John Margolies

Sander Pleij is the coeditor of the European Review of Books, a new magazine of culture and ideas. This week, help support the European Review of Books by contributing to their Kickstarter.

So tomorrow I will start: from now on I will only speak English. No more Dutch. And when people ask me for my motivation I will tell them I am doing this for the children, the future is English. I am surrendering to the language. In some ways the recent demasqués of both the UK and the US have made it easier to surrender—to the language, that is.

I live along a canal in the center of Amsterdam with my wife and our four daughters. There is much conversation these days about the invasion of tourists. Just as certain as I am that from tomorrow morning on I will only be speaking English, I’ve made another decision: I shall also surrender to tourism. Yes, the tourists can have it all. I will open our house and I will live as the typical Dutchman you want me to be. I give up.

By now you are either annoyed or bewildered because of my English: it is so bad and so childish, shameless as well.

Should the quality of my English matter? Last month a big English literature prize went to a novel that was written in dialect, something rural and very primitive. And what about all that authentic literature “from the streets”? Written in slang. Did not scientists pose some theory, decades ago, that all languages are equal? I am proud of my English. I am writing with a vocabulary that might be smaller and have less connotations to me. Fewer connotations. It is built of British and American lingo. But this is how the rest of the world communicates when they speak English. This is our English. Brought to us by Playmobil, Intertoys, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Superman and Batman, Michael Jackson, Rocky Balboa, the internet, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, advertisements, clothing labels, Coca-Cola, Big Macs, Nike Air Max, cars, hotel signs, warnings, et cetera, et cetera. Clear and without the secret in-crowd nuances. Every controversial word we use has been pointed out—called out? You should try it: speaking world-English. No hidden or fuzzy meanings. Democratic. Accessible to all. Eat it or starve behind your own bastions, you dialect-speakers. But hé, I don’t care.

I have dreamed in your language. Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Come On Baby Light My Fire—even before I was born the lyrics invaded my Dutch mother’s belly. This is how I communicate in Amsterdam with the tourists: with the Germans, Americans, French, Nigerians, Brazilians, Italians and whoever else I encounter here. My words are the pauper’s poem.

I need to put in a little something for vanity reasons: contrary to what I was telling you, I am a little ashamed of my English and you should know that passively I am so much better. I read articles on rugby, history books, some philosophy, and I am trying to get a grasp on the study of consciousness. Furthermore I love reading English fiction, in English. Yes, in a translation I would see nuances and references that I am now missing. But now I can steer more myself. You might think that beauty is in a word or a sentence, even that it comes from the author. That is not where beauty is. A pile of horseshit can be someone’s beauty, if the brain-electricity of the beholder is signaling so.

But as I was saying. Tomorrow morning I will have all five of my girls at the table. We brunch together every Sunday. Obligatory. Me; my wife; the oldest, who is 19; the youngest, who is 11; and the twins, who are 14. Fun fact: in Dutch we say de tweeling is 14, so in Dutch my twins are one and not plural. Me and my four or five females. Tomorrow I announce my plans: English only, and we open the house to the tourists.

Hi. It’s been a while. Work is going great here. We are now producing cheese, pannekoeken, stroopwafels and are doing very well, I have to say. The workshops turn out to be a great way to get people into the house.

The tourists are amusing themselves by seeing us, Dutch people, in live-action Dutchness. I keep an eye on the Tripadvisor comments. We even had to hire a company to handle the queueing in the street outside. At first this caused some trouble with the neighbors, but then I came up with the Consciously Consuming Queue-plan. As per the CCQ-plan, created under the supervision of the city council, the neighbors sell crafts and homemade chocolate milk. It is good business, and the neighbors can now earn income, too, thanks to the automated curtain system we developed: visitors pay to get on the wifi and then pay via wifi to open the curtains for a full thirty seconds at a time, even at night. Everybody earns—though I’m currently in discussion with the neighbors about the 20 percent fee I am asking.

I want to implement this system in the Red Light District, and am in discussions with the city council about it. When I imagine the future, the whole place could be like a sexy advent calendar. I have always wanted to free the girls of pleasure—you see, I make a point of not calling them by degrading names.

My own girls had some problems adapting to the English and the opening of the house. I said: but what about how beautiful and bonding it is for the whole world to experience the real life of someone you thought of as a foreigner? The girls got so mad at me after I introduced the Living Anne Frank plan (LAF), and yes, true, it would have been better if I had told them ahead of time that I was letting the tourists read their diaries. But it . . . I still get tears in my eyes when I see a Japanese girl with her parents reading the diary of one of my daughters, sitting in her room. Every day I walk past the Anne Frank Huis, they do it so well. I have reached out to them, no response yet. Always a queue of people outside, very respectful. Some of them come here. Anyway, my daughters—I should have expected this. Women, they complain. My wife, now she is spending all her time in these yoga resorts, she hates tourism, she says yoga is not tourism. Sorry, ex-wife. My alimony pays for the non-tourism yoga. But next week is a big day. It is the twins’ birthday, I’m hoping to see all my girls here again. They are coming from all over the world, where they live and study in their luxury apartments, all thanks to that steady income we are getting now (from the tourists!). That’s what you want—doesn’t everybody? The best for your kids.

Sometimes people consult me about the tourist business. I do not tell them everything, of course, I’m not crazy. You do not tell people where the goose with the golden eggs breeds.

Ding, text message: the twins. First they were studying in Spain, some language course: English-Spanish or the other way around, now they are “traveling,” but they say they will come. Good! I will be my old self for this reunion, maybe I will even speak a bit of Dutch. And I won’t wear my costume. To be honest it would feel good to walk for a day without these wooden fucking clogs. Yes, I am going to dress up nicely for them, they want to see their father and husband, or ex-husband.

Now even the tourists are gone. I am sitting here, in the house, all alone. You haven’t heard from me since before the reunion. Since the events. I was so excited that I even went out to buy some real clothes. But I became very annoyed because, you know what! I was not allowed into our main luxury department store! I asked them if it was because my passport says I am Dutch. I’ve heard of these practices: not letting the Dutch in, and frankly I can understand why they keep the Dutch out, the Dutch always whine about the price of a coffee. We are blunt. But it wasn’t because I was Dutch, or it sort of was. The bouncer said it was Chinese, Russian, and Arab Day at the store: “CRAB day.” WTF? A stupid idea—you let only those people in, call it “exclusive,” and raise the prices. Actually I have to admit it’s a brilliant idea. The bouncer, though—he was so smug, didn’t even take off his sunglasses. But I did not get mad. In fact I do not get mad, ever. What I do is, I count to ten, then I take ten deep breaths, then I let my shoulders hang and think of Curaçao and the island breezes. I have not been angry for nine years and thirty-four days now.

So the day of the reunion had come. I was so happy. I had wanted to fetch everyone from the airport by limousine—we have an airport-service. I had wanted to pick them up with Lin and Jin, and An and Jiao, their stand-ins from China. That would have been such a jolly sight, the replacements dressed in my daughters’ old clothes. They left the house without much packing, you see.

They arrived in two vans. I was standing in front of the house with open arms but then a camera crew jumped out. I looked up and saw a drone was filming me. There were microphones swinging around. Some people in the queue took out their phones. We make some spectacles sometimes, after all. And only then, coming out of the second van, my girls. My ex-wife just nodded. The girls went up to their rooms immediately, cameras following behind. They saw the stand-ins doing their tasks—it was Own-Room-Time (ORT), when the tourists can see the Dutch girls in their natural environment, pouring milk, putting on earrings, reading letters by an open window. It was chaos. My girls were shoving tourists out of the way, and a cameraman knocked over the special light I’d installed in the living room. (It must always look like morning!) The twins ran into the Secret Annex—that’s what I call it, it’s darker in there, and a sign instructs tourists to be quiet, out of respect—and saw their stand-ins writing in their diaries. One of the cameramen pushed me away and slammed the door.

I must tell you that I was very, very close to anger.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, they had set up what they called a confrontation. The girls asked me all these questions on camera like they were accusations. I didn’t know whether to look at them or at the camera. Why had I sold out, they asked. (Sold what out?) Had I no idea how it felt for them to be watched constantly, to be photographed, to be filmed by strangers? And I, counting to ten so many times, taking ten deep breaths, letting my shoulders hang loose and thinking of all the Curaçaos in the world.

Hi again. I have done a lot of thinking since their stunt, their revenge, the viral video they called a “vlogumentary.” So dishonest that was. They nag you, interrogate you for hours, and then they just use a few moments. Viral they called it, the whole world watching me snap. You know, I have one weak spot—it should be everybody’s weak spot—they said I was profiting from Anne Frank, dishonoring her. Me! For every candle we sell, we give 20 percent to charity! (Me saying that ended up in the video, of course, totally out of context.) And then they said—and this was the final blow—“Daddy, the Dutch didn’t hide Anne Frank, they betrayed her!” I snapped, and now everyone has seen me throwing everybody out of the house and shouting: Een, Twee, Drie, Vier, Vijf, Zes, Zeven, Acht, Negen, Tien!

For weeks people came to point at the house and smirk and take pictures, or they visited “ironically.” The stand-ins were afraid of me. I just . . . I had to escape; even viral villains deserve a vacation. So one day I took the cash from the reserves and I hit the road. No phone—leave it behind. Things were way better before phones, I don’t have to tell you that. Peaceful. I didn’t have a plan, really, I just drove east, for hours and hours. Strange to get in a car and not have a phone tell you where to go, when to exit the roundabout. No map lady to mispronounce Dutch cities, German cities. Maybe long and lonely drives seem “American” but we Europeans can do that, too.

And what an odd feeling to pull off the highway into a random town and then just follow signs to a hotel. The middle of nowhere. Maybe they have a room and maybe they don’t. I wanted to ask how often people nowadays just show up at a hotel without a reservation, and are they murderers or cheating on their wives? The provinces! They exist. Do they think of themselves as provinces?

The first night I slept well for the first time in months. As I woke up I had a vision—it was too real to call it a dream. I opened my eyes and at the foot of my bed stood Winnetou. The noble warrior said nothing, just looked at me with that wise expression. His bronze arms folded across his bronze chest, that calm, all-knowing face, not even blinking. It all came back—reading the Winnetou books as a child. The Apache warrior with his tomahawk and feathers, fighting alongside Old Shatterhand, his blood brother. I spent so many hours imagining myself on the prairie. I would take a butter knife from the kitchen and pretend to fight the grizzly bear, the way Old Shatterhand did. He was no greenhorn.  Why did Winnetou come back now? What did he want to say to me? I had left without a goal, but now I was a pilgrim.

My father gave me my first Winnetou books and made me read them. It was obligatory. I will admit that I was afraid of my father. He was not, as they say, “affectionate,” not as indulgent as I have been (and for what!). He was angry at everything. But sometimes he took his old German copies of Winnetou and read pages to me in the original, like a sacred code. I think he was angry at the world for it not being Winnetou’s world.

He even took me—not my sister, not my mother—on Winnetou trips. He drove us all the way to Karl May’s birthhouse. The creator of Winnetou was the only author my father cared about. It was a ten hour drive, near Dresden—a beautiful place before they wiped it out, my father said bitterly. I lied to my school friends about these vacations. Maybe it is hard to remember now, but it was weird to choose to go to East Germany. And my father hated communism. But he was proud to speak German, not a popular language in Amsterdam, and wanted me to understand. When I was nine he took me to the Karl May Spiele. It’s a big open-air play; the stage is a fake Wild West town set against a mountain. But the horses were real. I could tell my father was a bit embarrassed at his real crying—he never cried. But the noble warriors, he told me, they understood the world, they understood the meaning of pain, they knew if you were noble or not.

And so I drove on, north to Bad Segeberg, and got a single adult ticket for the Karl May Spiele. It was still there. And there I was, a 50-year-old man, the only Erwachsene in the audience without a Kind. But when Winnetou died I am not embarrassed to tell you that I cried, too.

The next morning Winnetou came to me again in my hotel. I said: “Winnetou, Winnetou, is that you?” and this time he spoke to me, very calmly and slowly:

“Kāros amēiks. Prāmos wṛdhom indo europeana.”

I woke up and felt lucid. I knew what I had to do: Authentic Standard Indo-European (ASIE).

I would bring us back to the future, to the language that had blown with the Western wind, over the Caucasus, over the Alps, over the Atlantic Ocean, over the world.

At home I went to a library and studied. I found my old Winnetou pocket editions, they were still on a shelf; they say Hitler had a Winnetou bookshelf in all his residencies. You see, no one can be a 100 percent evil all the time. Even Hitler must have had dreams of an America. I recognized all the drawings: the cowboys, always unshaved, guns in their weak hands pointing faintly to the ground. Except for Old Shatterhand they were all cowards. And Winnetou! Winnetou rose bare-chested from the pages, wearing his naked, glimmering chest like it was a bullet-proof vest. Yet delicate. A strong lovely bosom, decorated with feathers and beads. Winnetou had opened a shutter to a deeper part of me, where my soul and spirit and genes were rooted and intertwined.

Now I am getting ready to open up shop again. I cannot tell you I am a happy man, but I am at peace. I do not think I will see my ex-wife or my daughters again soon, though hope is living in my heart, hope in the next generation. I trust that my grandchildren will someday want to know their roots. And when they come, from wherever, I will be ready. Strange that they will probably speak better English than Dutch. But they will understand me. Everyone will. Here is what they will read when they arrive at my door.

Kāros amēiks!

(Tickets: €30)

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